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3 ways to engage young people in construction

How do you excite a new generation and change construction’s image? The industry’s future is resting on it. Those who have succeeded offer their top tips.

1) Run a successful campaign

MyKindaFuture is a social enterprise that helps employers reach the next generation of talent, ranging from school-leavers to university graduates, and recruit them onto work experience, internship, apprenticeship and graduate programmes.

The company draws up bespoke programmes that typically engage with those who influence children, including their teachers and parents.

It is part of a team delivering Channel 4’s youth employment strategy, which aims to reflect the population of Britain in its workforce by 2020. It also works with other blue chip financial businesses and FM firm Mitie.

MyKindaFuture has recently started working with the Chartered Institute of Building to create a resource for children and teachers, and has also run a successful campaign with Crossrail.

“My observation about construction is that, more than any other industry, career opportunities are so closely linked with the economic cycle, which swings sharply from boom to bust,” says MyKindaFuture managing director William Akerman.

“And in the economic downturn, the industry seems to abandon engagement with young people and their influencers. Once you do that, it can’t suddenly be switched back on.

“A brave chief executive in the industry needs to put forward a 10-year skills strategy and make it their personal legacy to ensure the sector gets involved with engaging, informing and upskilling for the longer term.”

On our doorsteps

On a more local level, Mr Akerman advises companies to make the most of the contact and opportunities that they have to engage with schools.

“It’s always best to send a young person rather than a middle manager or CEO, and make sure there is a consistency in the message and materials”

William Akerman, MyKindaFuture

“It’s always best to send a young person, who kids can relate to, rather than a middle manager or CEO, and if these trips are organised on an ad-hoc basis make sure there is a consistency in the message and materials,” he says.

“If you offer work experience, this should give the young person something they can remember.

“We’re currently running a campaign with Your Life and the STEM sector called Best School Trip, where we’re taking young people from five different schools to the headquarters of one of 50 companies where science and IT is involved in their business.”

The companies pull out all the stops to make sure it’s a trip the children will remember, including site visits and labs where they build their own computer.

For example, Tideway will host its day entirely on a boat on the Thames and manufacturer Rexam showed the process of turning aluminium into a Coca- Cola can.

United Biscuits held a site visit and taste test, while Nestle hosted a site tour at the Kit Kat factory. Aspects of the trips are put on YouTube.

“It’s essential to create maximum impact if you want young people to tell their friends and parents how great construction is,” Mr Akerman says.

“Campaigns work best if they are a mixture of online and offline; to reach a large audience, but then have face-to-face contact to deliver more measurable outcomes.”

Crossrail campaign

One successful campaign MyKindaFuture worked on was with Crossrail.

The team behind the £14.8bn project wanted to challenge misconceptions surrounding the industry, raise awareness of STEM subjects and show what a thriving and rewarding career construction can be.

MyKindaFuture was tasked with creating an interactive online and offline campaign in June 2014, with the aim of engaging with female students aged 16-19 studying STEM subjects.

It was to coincide with national Women in Engineering Day and aimed to upskill young people through face-to-face workshops.

The online element involved a nationwide campaign, targeting more than 1,000 schools and colleges and challenging female students to send in their ideas in response to the question: ‘How would you encourage the next generation of females to become engineers?’

Face-to-face workshop sessions were then delivered to Crossrail’s five London-based partner schools and colleges, with students given a chance to participate in the same challenge while also getting insight into the construction world, along with information on different career paths.

Following both the online challenge and in-school workshops, MyKindaFuture shortlisted candidates and the 30 best submissions were then invited to a special event held at Crossrail’s headquarters on Women in Engineering Day.

The top five of the 30 finalists were offered a year’s mentoring from some of the most respected female professionals from within the industry.

The Crossrail campaign helped to raise the visibility of STEM subjects and the construction industry, reaching 32,416 female students.

Top tip

Keep activity going with schools and colleges even in a downturn when you’re not hiring – it’s essential.

2) Work with schools

Bam Construction has been actively involved in school engagement, particularly in last 12 years since the days of building PFI schools, when it first started to appear as a client requirement.

These days engagement has turned into a mini-industry, with the company engaging with around 12,000 students every year and working with teachers to integrate construction activities into the school curriculum.

Site visits have stimulated a wide range of activities and projects: a GCSE drama group from a school in the West Midlands wrote and performed a play about the dangers of playing on construction sites following a site visit; primary school children have incorporated what they learn about machinery in their project about wheels; and a physics class used a site visit to learn about post-tensioned concrete.

“We do look for ways where we can integrate construction activity into the curriculum, particularly among primary schools – it’s essential to catch their interest early on,” says Bam Construction director of learning and development Chris Jones.

Community co-ordinator role

Bam has a community co-ordinator for each of its seven regions, whose job it is to establish links with schools.

Like other contractors, the company offers work experience to students and has recently extended this to a week-long summer school at its office in St Albans. This involved 10 year 10 students taking part in an exercise to design a sustainable development.

“With normal work experience there is a limit to what students are able do,” Mr Jones says.

“But moving to this more practical approach gives them with a defined output at the end of the week, as well as providing opportunities to visit sites and talk to Bam employees about their own careers.”

He says construction has an enormous challenge transforming perceptions of the industry, but that good things are happening. He cites the CITB’s new careers portal Go Construct as a positive move for the sector.

“Of less interest to us are the general careers fairs run by schools or local authorities,” he says. “We prefer to engage students with practical activities that give them a better understanding of what construction is all about.

“We support Open Doors, but we do this all year round and I think more firms should.”

He adds that Bam believes site trips work best so long as certain criteria are met:

  • Pick the right site, one where there is something of real interest for people to look at.
  • Find someone to talk about an interesting aspect of the scheme.
  • Provide takeaways – if schools are involved Bam often uses a school activity pack.
  • Put on a quiz for children to find the answers as they go round site – or something else to help them absorb information.
  • Ensure you have good viewing windows through site hoarding so the public can look at how the work is progressing – the actual work on too many sites is hidden away.

Top tip

Arrange as many site visits as you can – all year round, not just for the Open Doors event.

3) Open sites to the public

As part of the Open Doors event in March, Taylor Woodrow stakeholder manager Chris Staples organised site visits to the £142m depot at Old Oak Common in London.

“We had two boys change their choice of degree course from electrical to civil engineering on the back of the visit”

Chris Staples, Taylor Woodrow

When it’s completed it will be home to the fleet of trains required for Crossrail’s services, which will be up and running in 2018. As well as providing a site visit, which Mr Staples argues is in itself essential, visitors were given a presentation about what it’s like to work in construction.

“We had two boys change their choice of degree course from electrical to civil engineering on the back of the visit,” he says.

With “dozens and dozens” turning up on just the one day the site was open, Mr Staples put this success down to being proactive and promoting to local schools in the area beforehand.

He says it’s essential that all visitors get a chance to go on site and offers several pointers for successful open day visits:

  • Make sure you have lots of helpers – one per every six visitors – and set up a special safe walking route around the site.
  • Get as many people from the project team involved as you can.
  • Work with local schools and related charities to promote the event beforehand.

Sindall’s Scottish experience

Morgan Sindall has been involved in Open Doors in Scotland since the UK Contractors Group started it three years ago.

In this year’s event, the company invited visits to the new £11.3m Health and Care Centre in Glasgow, but in previous years offices have been on the menu.

“We find that the type of project constructed is not really a factor,” says Morgan Sindall Scotland community benefit assistant and proposals manager Carla Taylor-Combe.

“The key is making the visit as interesting as possible, with co-ordinated visits and careers information that demonstrate just how much opportunity there is in the industry.”

As well as showing visitors around the site, they also take the opportunity to talk about Morgan Sindall generally and summarise the sort of careers there are in the sector.

This part of the visit was held at a local hall, ensuring the event had a real community feel. Talks are accompanied by storyboards of the project, with information to take away about construction courses available in the local areas.

Ms Taylor-Combe, part of the team co-ordinating Open Doors events in Scotland, says they drum up interest in their sites by targeting local schools and colleges beforehand.

They have also found that running the visits over a Thursday and Friday, rather than Friday and Saturday, tends to attract more visitors.

She adds that careers fairs can also work well – a recent STEM event at a school in East Renfrewshire attended by Morgan Sindall attracted 1,000 people.

“At fairs, we find that the more hands-on activities you have to engage with students, the more interest you generate, which leads to better discussions around the industry, the skills involved and the careers on offer.”

Top tip

Take every opportunity to talk about the industry more widely – and open the sites on Thursdays and Fridays!

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