Interview Geert Aelbrecht (BESIX): diversity, inclusion and innovation in the construction sector

An interview with Geert Aelbrecht of Belgium-based and internationally active construction leader BESIX on the evolving expectations of a more diverse workforce, inclusion, and digital transformation in the construction industry.

Geert Aelbrecht is Chief People Resources Officer and Head of QHSE (Quality, Health, Safety, and Environment) at BESIX Group, a multidisciplinary global player in construction, real estate development, and concessions.

Geert joined BESIX in 2007, knows the sector inside out, and has seen the construction industry and the world of contractors evolve. Moreover, BESIX Group was – and is – an innovator in several areas.

Today you can’t talk about buildings and other structures without also talking about data (Geert Aelbrecht)

In this interview, we look with Geert at innovation, digitalization, and shifts in managing the workforce in the construction sector as diversity and inclusion becomes essential. The interview was conducted at the occasion of a session at “The 5th conference on Wired for Growth” 2021, in which Geert participated. The theme: “Diversity and inclusion as drivers of innovation in your business.”

Geert Aelbrecht (second from left) of BESIX during the panel discussion at The 5th conference on Wired for Growth 2021 – source and courtesy The Fifth Conference

Geert, what made you decide to participate in the event as a speaker?

Geert Aelbrecht: First of all, because the organizers asked me (smiles). As a leading company in our sector, we have the task of putting the construction industry in the spotlight. Because all too often, it is still underestimated, i.a., in terms of complexity and what needs to be managed.

In addition, with BESIX Group, we also have a story to tell. In the fifteen years that I have been active, I have seen many changes, and if sharing these evolutions with others teaches them something, it is meaningful.

I think it is also essential that we learn from other sectors. That is why I usually try to accept invitations for cross-sector events.

Inclusion comes from the fact that you want to show respect…the definition of respect doesn’t change, but the interpretation of it does (Geert Aelbrecht)

The new generations of workers – impact on business and culture

The theme of the debate was diversity and inclusion as drivers of innovation in your business. There was also a focus on engaging millennials as drivers of innovation and energy. Before this talk, you said that you are recruiting “millennial” engineers. An even younger generation is quietly entering the job market and putting even more emphasis on balancing life and work and so on. How do you experience that?

Geert Aelbrecht: We recruit around 150 to 200 newcomers every year for our central construction business.

That business consists of BESIX and Six Construct in the Middle East, not our subsidiaries and everything else. Most of those newcomers have a technical background and go to projects or jobs at headquarters.

Within that group, there are about 30 to 40 young Master’s students who are fresh out of universities, such as civil engineers or industrial engineers. For a few years now, we’ve seen some noticeable trends there.

The first trend is that it is becoming an increasingly diverse population. When I started, the candidates were predominantly white and male. Now half of the Master’s students we recruit for engineering jobs are female. In other words, diversity is increasing, and it’s already starting in the universities.

Second, we see a greater diversity of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. This ranges from the classic, more local profiles to increasingly international candidates. We are also seeing an increase in workers whose parents or grandparents came to Belgium as immigrants.

In other words, there is a big change in the population of employees with significant differences between baby boomers and Gen X on the one hand versus the people, including many millennials (Generation Y), who are joining and strengthening the company today on the other hand.

We have to manage this evolution. Management is used to a specific composition and is now confronted with a rapidly changing inflow. And we recruit fast. I think about half of our employees are new to the company. By “new,” I mean they have less than five years of experience in the company.

Salary and career opportunities remain essential but the weight of purpose, sustainability, etc., has increased significantly (Geert Aelbrecht)

Generations are changing with an impact on work culture as a consequence. Do you also feel that your efforts – and those of other companies – to promote inclusion are having an impact?

Geert Aelbrecht: I think there are two things. On the one hand, inclusion comes from the fact that you want to show respect, and on the other hand, it comes from the value of people who join.

The definition of respect doesn’t change, but the interpretation of it does. You have to manage that to make people and managers understand how that interpretation has evolved and is likely to continue doing so. 

The second aspect concerns the responsibility of employees to show what value they can contribute to the company. In the past, people took their time to prove that they could grow quickly. That patience and the speed with which they want to move up have also changed. The desire of young people to quickly assume responsibility – and be recognized for it – has changed enormously.

However, you also have to manage that. On the one hand, you have to create some patience because our industry is based on experience, which is necessary to do well whatever you are going to do. But at the same time, we also have to put more effort into making sure that they feel valued and can grow, so again, a balancing act.

“Old school” management styles don’t work anymore

Geert Aelbrecht: “Old school” management styles don’t work anymore. You really have to think about performance and career orientations and building experience a little bit faster and broader than before.

That’s a balance you must pay attention to during the onboarding phase and afterward if you want to keep millennials on board for a long time.

The increased diversity, by the way, is especially but certainly not limited to younger – new – employees. The fact that they have such a diverse background means that you have to manage with much more focus than before.

You can effectively see that younger generations’ expectations and attitudes have significantly evolved during interviews before recruitment and afterward. We organize “welcome days” to make them feel at home as part of our onboarding activities. We then ask why they chose us and what is the most important factor for them to stay with our company. There has been a clear shift towards “purpose” in this respect in recent years in the answers they give. They want to know what the purpose of the company they work for is.

Salary and career opportunities remain essential, of course, but the weight of purpose, sustainability, etc., has increased significantly. Consequently, the way you answer those questions is also more important, not from a marketing standpoint but from the reality of what you do and stand for.

People are really “challenging” the status quo. They want to know precisely what you do. So our investments in sustainability, diversity, human rights, and similar topics are paying off, especially because what we do and say is not a matter of “talk.” It is also a “walk,” something we really do.

The investments in sustainability and citizenship I launched with my colleagues thus become a value in the market – for future talent, our customers, and society.

The construction world has always been a bit, as I call it, elastic. It’s like pulling a rubber band, and at some point, it pulls back, and then everything goes fast (Geert Aelbrecht)

Those are many examples of what younger generations want and how you can effectively engage them to be that engine. Are there other ways their energy adds to the business?

Geert Aelbrecht: The actions we take and the generational shifts affect everyone in the company and therefore become a mindset.

But of course, you get a mixture in the process. In all the talk about generations, people often forget this, and that sometimes bothers me.

The ideas and visions of younger generations influence those of older ones, but the opposite also applies. So with every new generation of employees you attract, that mix changes somewhat, and that’s exactly what we manage much more consciously than in the past.

Fifteen years ago, the electrical, mechanical, and electronic aspects accounted for say 20, 25, and in very rare cases, 30 percent of the value of a project. Today it makes up almost half of the cost of your project (Geert Aelbrecht)

Innovation in the construction industry

OK, that’s clear. Let’s talk about innovation in the construction industry. The industry has traditionally been somewhat slower in terms of digital transformation and new technologies. However, now it is moving fast, among other things, with the rapid growth of building information modeling (BIM). How are you dealing with the innovations in this area?

Geert Aelbrecht: The construction sector is inherently more conservative. After all, you build for the very long term, and you don’t take immense construction risks just like that.

As a result, innovation and other ways of doing things can sometimes be delayed. After all, you want to make sure that what you construct will stand up in the first place.

On the other hand, that means that technologies that are often first used in other sectors are already very mature before being used in the construction industry. And then things can suddenly move very quickly, as you indeed see now in many areas.

Building information modeling is effectively a perfect example of that. About a decade ago, it was virtually non-existent. Today, however, BIM is very much alive in the industry. And perhaps in a few years, you won’t be able to set up a construction project without it.

The construction world has always been a bit, as I call it, elastic. It’s like pulling a rubber band, and at some point, it pulls back, and then everything goes fast.

The same is true, for example, smart building technologies. Until about five years ago, the industry rarely talked about data and buildings, but today you can’t talk about buildings and other structures without also talking about data.

The technology is there. And it can be installed perfectly today because it has already been intensely tested. So it can go fast to implement the next layers of technology in your business.

Construction itself has become an order qualifier, the order winner is the underlying technology (Geert Aelbrecht)

For us, this means that the value chains are opening up very quickly and widely. This also has consequences in terms of personnel management and changes: after all, you need new talent and new capacities.

That is not so obvious for our sector, but if you don’t do it, you will disappear from the market because you will only be a subcontractor for someone who has all the new technologies.

So you have to reposition your company in certain areas where you want to be a leader. You have to make choices because you can’t be a leader in everything. And often, in doing that, you have to find a partner to help you lead.

That’s why we had a start-up acceleration program and why we recently announced several collaborations. By way of an example: together with i.Leco and Proximus, we have created a leader in smart buildings and energy transition, aug∙e. And together with grid operator Elia, we want to give smart buildings an active role in the electricity system. Moreover, we are a pioneer in building information modeling in the Benelux. In 2018 we were the first in Belgium with a BIM level 2 certification.

Our primary activity of building remains, but it is a very different way of building. Fifteen years ago, the electrical, mechanical, and electronic aspects accounted for say 20, 25, and in very rare cases, 30 percent of the value of a project. Today it makes up almost half of the cost of your project. That’s a massive shift. But it is essential to keep our place around the table, along with all the innovations in the various construction projects themselves.

In this regard, construction itself has become an order qualifier, and the order winner is the underlying technology.

A lot of innovation indeed and changes in various areas at the same time. Geert, thanks for your time and insights.