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Taking the fight for skills online

We’re all too familiar with the pressure on schools to squeeze in extra-curricular activities alongside the rigorous timetable of the national curriculum, not least to mention the pressure on their budgets.

So when it comes to addressing the industry skills gap and engaging school children in construction careers, we at Balfour Beatty have inevitably faced our fair share of struggles.

Schools simply do not have the resources to facilitate visits to construction sites, or the time in their bulging timetables. Furthermore, as gatekeepers to our future talent, we have had a tough job opening teacher’s eyes to the vast number of career opportunities across the sector.

Our schools engagement programme uncovered a lack of interest and a common view among young people that construction “is a dirty job” and “there isn’t a career in construction for me”.

Interactive engagement

It was time to crack that perception and engage them in a novel way.

Our initiative started in Lancashire, where we had issued a direct appeal to schools to support our recruitment efforts for a project that was struggling to fulfil its work placements.

LearnLive and Scape Group worked with us to take the construction site into the classrooms of Lancashire through an interactive online broadcast, to inspire young people from different backgrounds and cultures to take up a career in the industry.

Since then, more than 30 schools across England have got involved, and we are planning to reach thousands more students with sessions planned in Wakefield, Wick, Thurso and Hampshire.

We recently hosted our largest ever interactive broadcast, with more than 3,000 tech-savvy students aged 11-18 participating in a live feed from Balfour Beatty projects, including the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool and the M1 development near Leicestershire. The opportunity gave students the chance to see for themselves the type of projects with which they could get involved.

“Our schools engagement programme uncovered a lack of interest and a common view amongst young people that construction ’is a dirty job’

Through the live video interaction they are accustomed to, students could ask questions of workers out on site via their tablets and smartphones. By joining the online meeting room, students could observe engineering works being undertaken on a new motorway bridge, as well as see the view and control panel in an “office in the sky”, from the top of one of our tower cranes.

Opinions slowly changing

A ‘hands up’ survey at the beginning of a recent broadcast showed that just 3 per cent were interested in the industry.

By the time we had finished this had reached around 60 per cent, with most responding that they simply didn’t understand the industry previously and thought that roles were constrained to site management and trades.

These latest efforts to address the skills gap support Balfour Beatty’s commitment to The 5% Club and the recruitment of apprentices and graduates into the workforce.

With forecasts suggesting that 400,000 construction workers are set to retire in the next five to 10 years, if we are to deliver the infrastructure Britain urgently needs then it’s imperative we take significant steps to open up the industry and encourage our future workers to consider construction as a rewarding career path.

Mark Farrah is Balfour Beatty regional managing director, North and Midlands

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