Making construction great to work in again


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According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the construction industry will need to attract 157,000 workers by 2021 to meet demand.

With nearly half the workforce over the age of 45 and Brexit having deterred EU workers (7% of the construction industry workforce is from the EU), the need to attract new workers to the industry is vital.

However, in order to attract more workers, the industry needs to be a more appealing career option. Its reputation and image need an overhaul if it is to appeal to the next generation but it is not a simple task.

"There is a real dichotomy as to where the industry should put its efforts,” says Assad Maqbool, partner, Trowers & Hamlins. Last year the Government set up a £22m fund administered by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) which will benefit 26 large scale projects by helping them set up onsite training hubs.

It’s an important initiative but does it adequately highlight the wide variety of careers the construction industry offers in order to make it an attractive proposition to people of different skill levels?

Technological advances such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) means the range of jobs and skills required to work in the industry is broadening. Similarly, modular technology is moving some building work into high-tech factories which generate a range of jobs from low skilled to high-tech.

Raising awareness of the high-tech and the higher-skilled jobs available is important, not least because it can help broaden the appeal of the industry and break down some common assumptions about the type of work available.

Land surveyor Alison Watson MBE and architect Dan Gibson have been working in this area since 2009 when they set up A Class of Your Own targeting the curriculum within STEM subjects and designed a course with construction industry backing which gives students hands-on, practical experiences working on projects directly related to the built environment.

Seventy schools now run the course putting mentors from the industry into schools where they can teach the course and promote the different careers on offer. This also allows students to forge links with local businesses and potentially move into apprenticeships. However, 70 schools is just a drop in the ocean.

“Whilst the Design Engineer Construct (DEC) course is highly valued by the schools which teach it to their 14-18 year old students (since it is a qualification that the construction industry endorses and leads directly into job opportunities), DEC does still have to compete against the traditional A-Levels and new technical qualifications that the government is promoting as well,” says Katie Saunders, partner, Trowers & Hamlins. “This is why Trowers has supported DEC with creating and teaching a bespoke construction law module which provides another facet to the course and elevates the benefits of the course for more academic students”

Alison Watson is working towards getting the course officially recognised by the Government which can only help with the uptake. And, apprenticeships are becoming a bigger part of the narrative again having lost favour with successive Governments focused on increasing higher education attendance.

They are an essential piece of the jigsaw as they focus on a variety of skills from the more traditional trades through to professions like surveying. But better coordination and perhaps bigger incentives are needed not only in promoting apprenticeships but also in creating more opportunities.

“Quite often what will happen is that apprentices are taken on but if there is a flux in work then they will be the first people who are let go,” says Maqbool. "Something that we have worked on is looking at ways in which main contractors and secondary contractors can pool apprenticeships through an alliance.” This means apprentices go where the work is but it requires projects of scale to work. CITB have brought this together in their National Skills Academies for Construction.

Another solution is greater incentives for businesses to take on apprentices particularly for public procurement projects. Saunders explains: “A major contractor bids on the basis they will provide X amount of apprenticeships and training opportunities; it becomes part of their evaluation and selection criteria to win the project and once appointed they are contractually signed up to provide those things.”

It is something that is already being used in Wales and a way of putting social value into the contract. Trowers has also worked with HACT to support the housing charity on a Social Value Toolkit to enable public sector clients to evaluate employment opportunities being offered by bidders.

Charities like the Construction Youth Trust are also playing a part.

Maqbool is a trustee of CYT: “The Trust is focused on working with young people in secondary schools and colleges, prioritising those not well-represented in the industry, those most likely to miss out on opportunities, and those facing barriers to employment. We aim to coordinate across the industry, ensuring schools are able to engage with the breadth of the built environment sector. In 2018, the Trust engaged over 7,000 young people through bespoke programmes of employer engagement and has ambitious plans to reach even more this year.”

But should there be an overall leader in all these initiatives to ensure consistency and to maximise the benefits?

“Currently, there is not really an overall programme that either the Government or the construction industry put together which is uniform across the country and that would make sense,” says Maqbool.

However there are many diverse and successful initiatives being led by the industry and perhaps CITB should be bringing them together. Currently it is being left to charities like the Construction Youth Trust and disrupters such as Alison Watson and Mark Farmer, author of the Modernise or Die report, to raise awareness about the pressing need to make the sector more attractive as a career option for new entrants and to retain talent.

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