“We don’t get into bidding wars with employees”

Are you sitting comfortably? More than three-quarters of people in the insurance sector are – according to the latest jobs market survey from Reed, which found that 77% considered themselves either secure or very secure in their jobs. Ironically, and unfortunately for their employers, that means they’re much more likely to be looking around for other opportunities. In this piece for Insurance Times, I looked at what firms are doing to hang on to their staff as the employment market picks up, from hard cash to monitoring for signs of the five-to-seven-year itch…

“The world isn’t going to get a lot easier for a long time”

The surveying profession has already weathered 145 years, even if few members of the general public could tell you exactly what they do. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (est.1868) has not, however, made it this far by being complacent. It commissioned a report looking at how the world around it might change over the next 30 years, which points out that 25 years ago, the Berlin wall was still standing, the internet was a distant dream and hardly anyone was talking about globalisation. Conversely, we have no idea which of our current preoccupations – from climate change and the collapse of global economic structures, to Building Information Modelling and higher university tuition fees – will have the greatest impact in the decades to come. For the danger-themed April issue of the RICS’ magazine, Modus, I interviewed six senior surveyors about the threats facing the profession, confronting prolonged recession, technological obsolescence and even extinction.

Plumbing in cyberspace

Building Information Modelling, or BIM, is the biggest thing to happen to the construction industry in a generation. By allowing project teams to create complete virtual models of a building before they get anywhere near the site, it promises to dramatically improve speed, efficiency and reliability, eliminating expensive mistakes, and enabling better facilities management and, eventually, demolition too. But so much change is inevitably perceived as a threat too: to people’s jobs, to long-established practices, and to traditional definitions of legal responsibility when things do go wrong (because innovative new ways of working always mean innovative new ways of cocking things up). In less than three years, teams working on every centrally procured government project will have to use BIM, which means that construction firms across the industry – large and small – need to start implementing it now. This 16-page supplement, which I edited and partly wrote for Building magazine (sponsored by technology vendor Autodesk), explains how they can do it.

Buy now, pay later

Why drain your cash reserves to pay for your office fit-out, when you could spread the cost over several years and turn it into a tax-deductible expense? Leasing fit-outs is not a new concept, but it’s never really caught on – clients may be wary of taking out a loan or the rigorous credit checks involved, they may not fully understand the financial benefits, and many clients and contractors don’t even know it’s an option. But those contractors and suppliers who do routinely offer it to clients say that it’s a no-brainer for both parties. The availability of finance took a hit during the credit crunch, when lenders retreated from the market. They are now returning, however – in many cases faster than high street lenders. Leasing companies believe that with capital budgets still tight and limited finance available from other sources, their moment may have come. In this piece for AIS Interiors Focus magazine, I spoke to them, and their clients, to find out whether it really pays off.

Market forces

If you’re in any doubt that insurers secretly rule the world, take a look at the latest edition of Lloyd’s Market magazine. For this issue’s Foresight section, I interviewed insurance experts on Mexico’s controversial new government and its likely impact on infrastructure, organised crime and the oil and gas sector; the latest EU sanctions that prohibit insurers and reinsurers covering the transport of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products; how a Greek exit from the euro could throw contract law across the EU into chaos; the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope with 3000 antennas spanning Australia and South Africa; and gadgets in your car that log not only your driving behaviour but reveal your whole personality…

Dark side of the cloud

Cloud computing is becoming a corporate no-brainer as a sustainable, energy efficient alternative to buying and managing your own servers and software. But is it actually any greener? Greenpeace says not – it points out that the extraordinary growth in the number of data centres means that even significant improvements in efficiency are dwarfed by the increase in total energy demand, and that if the cloud was a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity consumption in the world. But the crucial detail is the source of that electricity. Because data centre owners seek a cheap, constant power supply and have historically favoured locations – Virginia, North Carolina – where electricity is produced from coal, their carbon emissions can be enormous. The good news is that in a fiercely competitive market where all the main providers are building furiously, some have realised the marketing potential of locations like Iceland where the power grid is almost zero-carbon. By shopping carefully, companies can not only reduce their own carbon footprint, but everyone else’s as well. For this piece for the Sunday Telegraph’s Business Technology supplement, I investigated the hidden environmental cost of cloud computing, and the key questions to ask a potential supplier.

Why don’t UK contractors work abroad any more?

The British engineers who led the building of the industrial age played a prominent role in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony. But his inclusion of those globe-trotting Victorians belies the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, UK contractors have almost completely disappeared from the world stage in the last 20 years, retreating home to the safety of familiar contracts and supply chains and lavish, low-risk PFI building programmes. They have remained resolutely domestic even after four years of recession, the dwindling of those PFI programmes and despite booming markets around the world – where, according to UK Trade & Investment, clients are crying out for British expertise. So what are they scared of? And why don’t any of the risks of overseas contracting seem to faze their European rivals? For Construction Manager’s October cover feature, I spoke to contractors of varying levels of adventurousness, and one very baffled German who can’t understand why they’d squander the advantages of language, legal systems and brand recognition bequeathed by those Victorian ancestors.