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Education should teach practicalities

Today’s graduates are insufficiently prepared for the realities of construction. By Barney Green

I finished my civil engineering degree almost 30 years ago, and have spent more than half of the time since then trying to improve safety at height in construction.

Massive gains have been made in that time. Almost every aspect of the industry is unrecognisable from when I started, apart from one persistent area: the limited attention paid to practicalities and safety within the development and education of our future decision makers.

With all effort put into safety on a building site and with the massive growth of career opportunities in health and safety, why are our graduates so poorly equipped in safety awareness? Surely this should be a theme running throughout their education? It could easily be accommodated in existing courses, linking into the planning and the ‘buildability’ sessions, for example.

We already have data that clearly indicates that safe sites make sense, not just in terms of fewer accidents, but also that an improved safety focus makes a positive impact to the bottom line. In which case, if we want those being trained now – be they architect, structural engineer, site manager, or tradesman – to contribute to safety in the industry, the sooner they get on board the ‘safety knowledge train’ the sooner they can pull their weight.

The current situation just isn’t working. We have had the ‘touch screen test’ as the minimum requirement for site access for many years, but we don’t equip our students to pass it. We bemoan the burdens of CDM, but sequential and consequential planning in detail is never taught when people are learning their professions. Instead, the knowledge required is expensively earned when formal education has long ceased.

Gaps in the syllabus

It is not just the safety element that seems to be missing from the current syllabus. We also need to ask if our educators are producing what the industry needs. Many companies share Combisafe’s frustration in trying to find technically trained people for R&D, testing, and product support.

Recently Kevin Mouatt, MD at SGB and current president of the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC), recounted his frustration in trying to recruit technicians or engineers who are prepared to be practical and to get involved. He accepted that “they cannot be expected to already have experience,” but insisted “they need to be capable of visualising the problem.” His offer to take on a graduate’s debt and enrol them into a focused post graduate training programme was rejected out of hand at the two colleges he approached.

We have a mass of professional bodies and trades associations, and they all know what their sector needs in terms of knowledge and skills. They also know the levels of safety and practical knowledge needed to do their job. Perhaps it is time we started to demand similar levels and knowledge from our students by requiring the courses they follow to provide more relevant and more practical foundations on to which experience can then be built.

Barney Green is business development manager at Combisafe