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Community outreach opens eyes to construction careers

Engaging with local communities is a key strand of Skanska’s diversity and inclusion work. The range of activities in Bristol, where it has been delivering a 10-year programme of transforming the city’s schools, highlights its approach to reaching out to the community.

Sue Willson is one happy customer. The headteacher at Ashton Gate Primary school on the south side of Bristol moved into a newly refurbished building at the start of the autumn term and couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome – and the construction process generally.

“It’s been such a good experience,” she says. “Skanska and the architect worked closely with us to make sure we got exactly what we wanted within the tight budgetary constraints, while fulfilling all our environmental requirements and working with us to best accommodate the special needs of some of the children.”

The construction schedule was re-arranged to complete the new outdoor multi-use games area situated in a different part of the site last year so that it could be enjoyed by pupils in advance of the new building opening.

Pupil engagement

“Skanska talked to teachers and support staff as well as the children – all groups were engaged as much as possible,” Sue says.

As the building work progressed, children were given talks about the project at their school and asked for their input about what was most important for them.

Towards the end they visited the site to see the transformation. “We have a few parents on our government body who are engineers and were certainly keen we should take advantage about learning about the project,” Sue says.

Ashton Gate Primary is one of 42 schools Skanska has built, extended or refurbished over the last 10 years as part of Bristol Local Education Partnership, the first LEP set up under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

LEPs were a new type of public-private partnership in which a private sector partner invests alongside the public sector. Bristol LEP was established in 2006 as a 10-year partnership between Skanska, Bristol City Council and Partnerships for Schools.  

As is usual with schools work, Skanska wants to use the build process as just the start of a relationship. It regularly revisits completed projects as part of its STEM ambassadors programme to promote career opportunities available on the back of studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (see box) and to highlight careers in construction generally.

Site managers will often give health and safety talks about the dangers of a construction site, and children will get involved – for example, by building bat and bird boxes for their school.

During the construction of May Park Primary it set up a ‘flying factory’ in a farmer’s barn just outside the city to produce prefabricated straw bales and timber wall segments and asked pupils to help pack straw into them.

Engagement boosts end result

Skanska construction director of the Bristol schools programme George Taylor says the more staff and pupils are engaged, the better the end product.

“Right from feasibility to handover and beyond, we speak to all of the stakeholders to understand what makes them tick, what’s their vision and design expectations – including those of the pupils. And then we ask them afterwards if we’ve delivered on them.”

“We also try to ensure the project becomes an educational tool in itself where we can work aspects of the project into the curriculum”

George Taylor, Skanska

Although this may seem an unusually high degree of engagement, George says they would do it anyway because it’s embedded into Skanska’s ethos of becoming part of the local community and trying to inspire the next generation.

“We also try to ensure the project becomes an educational tool in itself where we can work aspects of the project into the curriculum – writing reports from a site visit may be part of an English lesson, or measuring up new classrooms to see if we have built them to the correct size could be part of a maths lesson, and so on.

“The key is getting the schools on board early so we can engage with them.”

Alongside this, Skanska also takes part in a number of careers fairs with schools, universities, colleges and the local council, as well as the Open Doors Weekend – the national programme of opening up sites to students and the public by Build UK.

The local community also benefits from the schools programme through apprenticeships for local people. More than 90 per cent of site operatives live within a 40-minute drive.

“I feel extremely proud and privileged to be involved with the schools programme,” George says. “The work has such an impact on so many peoples’ lives. Just a few years ago parents were bussing their kids out to Somerset because the schools were poor and estates neglected.

“Building new schools and transforming existing ones is re-energising teachers and their students.”

Advice on visiting schools

Skanska’s James McKenzie-Boyle highlights the enthusiasm there is among Skanska staff for visiting schools and colleges to tell children and young adults about the range of exciting opportunities in construction. “I don’t know a single person who’s done it who doesn’t want to do it again,” he says.

“We have around 80 environmentalists in the company who come from all kinds of science disciplines. When you’re at school you’d never know that sort of job exists.”

Around 160 of Skanska’s staff from design managers to engineers are part of a national network of STEM ambassadors who talk about their work to encourage young people to continue to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

James, who as community investment manager is responsible for co-ordinating all of Skanska’s activities involving local communities including the STEM programme, says: “People get such a buzz out of seeing children’s eyes light up when they go around a site or you start talking about construction and they see how exciting it is.

“We take what we do for granted because we’re surrounded by people doing similar things.”

Though Skanska does many school activities through the STEMnet programme, it also reaches out directly to educational establishments.

It’s not unusual for contractors to highlight how difficult it can be to have these doors open to them, but James says it’s essential to take time to build up a relationship and promise not to create any extra work for the teachers.

“You do have to make sure you get the right people to go into schools and engage young people. Just because you can deal with the corporate world, you think you can pull it off on the hoof.

“It’s definitely worth doing a bit of planning beforehand. The key thing is to make sure you enjoy it – and keep it human.

“We give staff the resources to do that – making them feel confident to go and speak to 13 and 14 year-olds, which can be a scary thought – but it doesn’t have to be.”

An engaged and happy stakeholder

“I still don’t know how they managed to cut out part of a floor to give us a double-height school hall suitable for PE activities,” says Ashton Gate Primary headteacher Sue Willson.

She is referring to the complicated procedure of transforming what was an old tobacco factory dating back to 1915, into the new key stage two facility for Ashton Gate.

The four-storey building, which will accommodate 420 children in 16 classrooms, is the first office building to be converted into a school in Bristol. It was built for cigarette manufacture and was home to the offices of Imperial Tobacco until September 2014.

Five days after the teaching staff moved out, Skanska moved in to start the nine-month £4.6m transformation. It will be used for the juniors or key stage two children, with key stage one infants remaining on the existing site nearby.

As well as the removal of a large section of the first floor to form a double-storey hall, the work also entailed installing a new lift at the back of the building, major structural alterations including removing columns, and strengthening roof and floor steelwork.

Being part of the European Green Capital 2015, the school went over and above regulations to reduce energy consumption. The entire building has an intelligent LED lighting system that uses fewer and more efficient lamps than conventional lighting.

Movement sensors in every room minimise waste and contribute to an annual saving of 42 per cent over conventional systems. A 3 kW solar PV panel unit on the roof generates electricity for the building and a monitor in the reception area shows what the panels are producing.

This article has been produced in collaboration with Skanska as partnership publishing

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