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Balfour Beatty's fresh initiative engages pupils

Construct 2 Learn is a programme aimed at encouraging year 8 students to choose GCSE subjects that can lead to construction careers such as science, technology, engineering and maths.

Balfour Beatty is trying something new.

Classes of pupils have been invited into the contractor’s London head office, with the aim of dispelling some preconceived ideas about what construction entails, and to broaden their knowledge about what the industry has to offer.

“The purpose of today was to actually communicate to the schools and to the kids themselves the vast range of opportunities available for careers within the construction industry,” says Balfour Beatty senior commercial manager Kevin Webber.

The day is also set up to provide insight into what apprenticeships and graduate programmes involve, what the benefits are and to create greater links between the industry and schools.

Quantity surveyor Oliver Gregory had a large part to play in designing the programme, having recently come out of the apprentice programme.

“The day involves a series of activities that are hopefully fun and engaging and include a range of skills that are common in the construction industry, such as communication, managing budgets and some design as well as some health and safety issues,” he says.

“We’ve also looked at a general knowledge construction quiz just to see what people know with some facts afterwards.”

The inaugural Construct 2 Learn event welcomes Imberhorne School from East Grinstead and Harris Academy from South Norwood.

Engaging activities

The pupils work together in teams, sometimes competing against another one, to solve challenges ranging from building a bridge from rolled-up newspaper to designing a structure from drinking straws.

The latter involves describing the geometry of their straw structure on paper and then seeing if another team can rebuild it without having seen the original.

“What we are trying to do is create a model and generate a plan we can now transfer to other offices. We’ve got the backing from the senior management all the way up to the top”

Kevin Webber, Balfour Beatty

Other modules on the round robin of activities include a quiz and a health and safety exercise.

“What we are trying to do is create a model and generate a plan we can now transfer to other offices,” Mr Webber says.

“The next one we are going to do is in Cheadle, Manchester. We’ve got the backing from the senior management all the way up to the top [to roll this model out to regional offices].”

Female perspective

Charlotte Dodd is a trainee quantity surveyor who gravitated towards the industry due to her family being in construction. “My sister works for Balfour Beatty on the M25 project and she was on the previous project through [then] Mouchel Parkman,” she says.

“When I was in year 10 I had a two-week study leave and went into the road space data team. I was inputting road space studs and things like that and so never really saw this side of construction.

“When I left I still had, in my head, the electrician and plasterer side of construction. I didn’t understand the management side.

“My dad had a property company, so when I left school I got to see the management side. There was a two-week temporary job at Balfour Beatty at Connect Plus Services on the M25 and I really enjoyed that management side.

“I’ve definitely seen a change in attitude. At school the only construction [related activity] we had was woodwork, which never really appealed to me and that’s what I [associated with] construction when I was growing up.

“Now, when I speak to my nephews who are 16 and 13, they tell me all about the different things they are doing [that relate to] construction such as an electrician’s course.”

The scheme has targeted year 8 because it is at this stage pupils start thinking about which GCSE modules to pick.

This is crucial, explains senior resourcing partner for emerging talent Meera Shah, because whatever they decide will inform their A-level choices and, ultimately, their career options.

Balfour Beatty is planning a loosely associated follow-up where apprentices will visit schools to talk to pupils that have decided on a career in construction, having been engaged on an initiative such as Construct 2 Learn.

Apprentices in charge

“The beauty behind today is that the entire model has been designed and run by our apprentices,” Ms Shah says.

“Almost all of the senior people in the organisation have taken a step back because we thought the kids would relate to the apprentices better. Having had some conversations with some of the teachers, they felt exactly the same way.

“All of our apprentices that took part will be attending a STEM ambassador’s workshop that will train them in all the right skills for them to be able to go off into schools and colleges and deliver their own presentations.”

Untapped talent

Getting enough women into the industry is one of the most critical challenges construction faces in terms of diversity, as it represents the biggest single pool of largely untapped talent.

Balfour Beatty has recently seen some success here. “We saw a high percentage of females applying for our apprenticeship positions,” says senior resourcing partner for emerging talent Meera Shah.

“It’s really great because we’ve been trying to get them in through the door at that stage, as the percentage of [pupils across both genders] going on to study quantity surveying degrees and civil engineering and so forth at university has been decreasing year on year.

“For that reason, to get them coming in through the apprenticeship route is crucial for us. We made 15 offers from our first apprentices assessment centre and 10 out of the 15 were female.”

Ms Shah says it definitely came down to the ability that was shown on the day, rather than positive discrimination.

“We’re not going to specifically target females; it has to be their capabilities and what they show us on the day at these assessment centres,” she says.

“Those [women] will go onto our commercial apprentice scheme. They’ll train over five to six years and we’ll sponsor them to do a degree in quantity surveying and also obtain their chartership by the end of the seventh year.”


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