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Rising stars: How we can tackle the skills gap

A panel of the industry’s best new talent came together to offer a unique insight on why construction is struggling to attract young people – and how it can solve the problem.


Sarah Beale, CITB | Cameron Bell, Skanska UK | Gareth Bevins, Turner & Townsend | Roseanna Bloxham, RSK Group | Jonathan Hardisty, Turner & Townsend | Najwa Jawahar, WSP | Lianne Lawson, Willmott Dixon | Jonathan May, Stantec Treatment | Jeanette McLean, Walker Construction UK | Rachel Toor, Shaylor Group | Rebecca Wade, Kier | Richard Wood, Turner & Townsend

Skills shortages are a problem that has hung over the construction industry longer than any other.

According to the CITB’s Construction Skills Report, this industry will need to recruit an extra 158,000 workers over the next five years to meet projected workloads – and that’s without taking into account any potential impact of Brexit.

However, attracting more diverse talent into the sector is not easy, and the industry is failing to plug this skills gap as a result.

Several key reasons lie behind this failure, from the battle against negative public perceptions to the struggle to communicate the variety of roles and opportunities on offer.

So what needs to change to bring in young talent and futureproof the sector?

To discuss the issue and devise some solutions, Construction News, in association with CITB, convened a roundtable with a difference.

In attendance were 11 individuals that represent the industry’s most promising emerging talent, all of whom are shortlisted for the Rising Star award at this year’s Construction News Awards.

‘Falling into’ construction

For many who sat around the table, construction was an industry they simply fell into – including Kier preconstruction lead Rebecca Wade.

After graduating from university with a history degree, Rebecca “never had any intention” of entering construction, starting out her career in the public sector. Having gained some insight on the industry through her first job, Rebecca decided to make her move into the sector.

Other panellists had actively sought a construction career, such as Turner & Townsend infrastructure project manager Jonathan Hardisty.

“I found the stumbling block was the careers advisers at school,” she said. “They only looked at construction as a skills and trades profession” 

Lianne Lawson, Willmott Dixon

After completing a master’s degree in physics, Mr Hardisty applied to construction firms but couldn’t get past the application stage and was told his degree wasn’t relevant.

It was only through meeting a couple of people working at Turner & Townsend that he got himself introduced to the right people and secured some work experience in the rail sector.

Your background should not make a difference when it comes to recruitment, according to his Turner & Townsend colleague Gareth Bevins, who argued that a diverse portfolio of people is needed to capture as many different skillsets as possible.

Rising Star roundtable 066

Rising Star roundtable 066

However, unconscious bias in recruitment can be a problem. “My first experience of construction was being told [at university] that I wouldn’t need to worry about job interviews, as all the interviewer would be looking for would be a version of themselves from about eight years ago,” said Mr Bevins, who serves as project controls engineer at T&T.

“But when you translate that across the whole industry, there’s only going to be a narrow skillset you’re looking at.” This “worrying” realisation only hit him three years later when he joined the industry, he added.

Changing perceptions

As the panellists explained their own routes into the industry, it offered a reminder of the sheer variety of career paths that are available.

“When I ask schoolchildren why they are shocked I am an engineer, they usually say that engineers are dirty” 

Najwa Jawahar, WSP 

However, they agreed unanimously that the public’s perception of the sector threw up barriers when attempting to attract new talent.

Willmott Dixon construction manager Lianne Lawson offered insight on the factors behind this, based on research she conducted into the industry’s lack of diversity for her university thesis.

“I found the stumbling block was the careers advisers at school,” she said. “They only looked at construction as a skills and trades profession. They didn’t understand that a job as a project manager, for example, existed.”

She said a solution to this was to go into schools and explain to teachers and students that the industry encompasses more than just bricklaying and muddy boots.

Rising Star roundtable 033

Rising Star roundtable 033

WSP senior structural engineer Najwa Jawahar said offering diverse role models to young children can be influential in turning the traditional perception of construction on its head.

Ms Jawahar goes into schools to talk about her own career and the opportunities construction can offer. As a woman from a Pakistani family, she tells children as young as six her story of overcoming her family’s initial objections to pursue a career as an engineer. “I’m happy when I get to talk to girls from ethnic minorities,” she told the panel. “They see me, standing in front of them, talking about all the different types of jobs I’m doing.”

When Ms Jawahar first goes into a classroom, she asks pupils what job they think she has – and says they are shocked when she tells them she is an engineer. “When I ask them why they are shocked I am an engineer, they usually say that engineers are dirty,” she said. “They already have these kinds of perceptions of the industry in place.”

“One mistake we’ve fallen into in the past is to create this single image of construction, when in fact it has so many” 

Sarah Beale, CITB

Walker Construction training manager Jeanette McLean agreed that the industry should engage with children at an early age to inspire them into the sector. “We should be in primary schools; we’re missing a trick,” she said.

Kier’s Ms Wade added that construction companies tended to be late out of the blocks compared with those in other industries when it comes to promoting themselves to university students. “The likes of Ford, JLL and PwC are getting in there and pitching quite early at universities,” she pointed out. “They’re offering sponsorships and placement years. I don’t see that visibility of construction there.”

Use one voice

However, the industry is not sitting on the issue. Initiatives such as STEM ambassadors and Open Doors are helping to raise awareness among future generations.

But shaking off the idea of construction as a one-dimensional labour-intensive sector is proving difficult.

CITB chief executive Sarah Beale put forward an explanation: “One mistake we’ve fallen into in the past is to create this single image of construction, when in fact it has so many different images. I think where we fall down as an industry is when we argue about what that image is. Then, we fragment […] with 200 different employers and bodies like us who all say we own the image.”

Then, when these different bodies and organisations go into schools to sell their different sector, both teachers and pupils are confused as to what construction actually is, according to Ms Beale.

Rising Star roundtable 035

Rising Star roundtable 035

Turner & Townsend infrastructure cost management director Richard Wood suggested that big organisations have an important role to play in tackling this. “I think all professional bodies associated with construction should collectively go into schools to talk about career paths,” he proposed. “It would be great if those institutions could speak with one voice to promote the breadth of roles.”

Ms Beale added that companies and trade bodies must back a single major behavioural campaign representing the whole industry. While there is a significant difference between professionals and trades in the industry, being transparent about the diversity of roles available would show that there was a place for anyone in the industry, she argued.

Indeed, this lack of industry co-ordination can be extremely counterproductive, Ms Beale explained. “We had 20,000 applications from young people wanting to be apprentices, but we only placed 9,000 of them. What did we do with the rest [of those applicants]? We let them go – because there isn’t one joined-up approach.”

The CITB chief executive added that the industry needed to present a united front, collating all applications together under one database to match the skillset of each applicant to the most suitable role.

“When we build something, we can’t put our brand name on the side of the building – so you don’t get that exposure” 

Jonathan May, Stantec Treatment

Turner & Townsend’s Mr Hardisty suggested existing education databases, such as Ucas, could be used as a template to resolve this. “The answer to that could be Ucas for construction,” he said, pointing out that this system enabled young people to pick the five places they would most like to go to university.

The same model could be used for the construction industry. “If employers are willing to be judged on a single platform, and one industry body could sponsor the platform, potentially it could provide a joined-up approach,” he suggested.

Marketing solutions

A central theme running through the afternoon’s discussion was that the industry needed to be smarter in promoting itself.

Stantec Treatment graduate mechanical engineer Jonathan May offered a theory as to why the industry struggles to advertise itself to the general public – and why it was losing out as a result.

“When we build something, we can’t put our brand name on the side of the building – so you don’t get that exposure,” he said. “So when young people go to career fairs, they probably have never even heard of your company – even if it’s the biggest infrastructure or construction company in the world.”

Rising Star roundtable 064

Rising Star roundtable 064

Because of this lack of visible branding, it’s hard for construction firms to stand out against globally recognised brands present in other industries.

RSK Group senior geoenvironmental engineer Roseanna Bloxham suggested the industry could tap into popular culture to engage young people and raise its profile. “We haven’t got any construction toy sets with any branding on you can buy. How about a Balfour Beatty building set, for example?” she asked.

“We need to be smarter in the way we’re talking to people about the industry and explain what we do and how we do it” 

Rachel Toor, Shaylor Group

She added that the industry could sell video games, like football sells Fifa, to engage young people in the industry. “If you can hire people from real companies in real jobs in these games, we could engage children,” she said.

Skanska assistant supply chain manager Cameron Bell, who is working on the A14 delivery scheme, argued landmark buildings and upcoming mega-projects should be used to inspire young people. “We just need to be bolder about what we do,” he said.

Shaylor Group assistant site manager Rachel Toor agreed. “Construction does provide benefits – how many millions of jobs does it provide? We need to be smarter in the way we’re talking to people about the industry and explain what we do and how we do it.”

Mr May cited the army’s Be The Best campaign as a good example of self-promotion by an industry that had also had issues with public perception. The campaign successfully covered the variety of different roles in this workforce, he pointed out, making it attractive to different people who will bring different skillsets.

“I think there is scope for us to do that, and say, ‘No matter who you are, there is a role for you in this industry’,” he said. “We need to say, ‘This is the industry and this is who we are’.”

Rising Star roundtable 059

Rising Star roundtable 059

Scrutiny relating to Carillion and Grenfell has only reinforced negative perceptions of the industry. However, Kier’s Ms Wade argued that the industry being under the spotlight made it even more important that it tackled issues head on.

“I have friends who work on major [media] publications, and Grenfell was the first time they spoke to me about my industry and asked questions about what I do and how it happened,” she said. “Grenfell was hugely tragic and there’s now big negativity around our industry – but it’s given us a spotlight. It’s up to us whether we can take that exposure and show who we really are.”

From offering branded toys to creating a Ucas for construction, the emerging talent around the table offered several interesting ideas on how to capture the attention of future workers.

For the CITB’s Sarah Beale, the proposals were eye-opening. “Being able to hear ideas of people who live and breathe our industry is invaluable,” she said. There have been some really valid points to take back and weave into our industry-based activity.”

From branded toys to a Ucas for construction, the talent around the table offered interesting ideas on how to capture the attention of future workers, with the industry now looking to rising stars such as our panel to help tackle future skills shortages.

The winner of Rising Star 2018, supported by the CITB, will be revealed at the Construction News Awards on 12 July

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