Construction and Generation Z: Where the responsibility lies

Lewis Chapman, 17, is currently applying for an apprenticeship.

As Construction News’s interview comes to a close, he makes a point about a common misconception he’s come across while studying.

“Most people think of construction and don’t realise the amount of trades [involved],” he says. “They don’t see all it could lead to.”

Mr Chapman’s application comes after completing both a Gateway Qualifications L1 Award in Health and Safety in a Construction Environment and the CITB Health and Safety Operatives Test to enable him to apply for a CSCS labourer card. CN meets him at the place he earned the qualifications: Harlow College’s construction skills hub in Essex, where he’s sat in the canteen alongside his teacher, senior tutor Graham Lucas.

On the day CN visits, the new skills hub building is days from its official opening (Mr Chapman’s qualification was delivered on site, but from one of the contractor’s offices – a ‘pop up’ hub was erected while the centre was being constructed).

Floors are being swept and furniture is being unpacked. Once ready, it will provide the facilities to reach out to more young people in the surrounding area. The hub will include permanent classrooms, giving students a chance to actually complete courses in a permanent building rather than solely on site.

Although he was originally inspired by his father, who works in construction, Mr Chapman says the encouragement of his school enhanced his understanding of the industry.

He attended Stewards Academy, a science specialist school which offers students the opportunity to complete a City & Guilds Basic Construction Skills certificate.

“Most people think of construction and don’t realise the amount of trades [involved]. They don’t see all it could lead to.”

“Having a school that is helping, and a family that is in the trade, definitely pushed me towards thinking this might be the job for me.”

The pressure being placed on schools to prepare their students for the workplace has grown in the years since Mr Lucas was at school, with all schools now having to give independent careers advice from year eight onward.

Mr Lucas tells CN it is a topic that is now part of the curriculum and has become “more critical”.

“When I look back, it didn’t really matter because whatever job you got when you left school wasn’t too dissimilar pay wise from skilled jobs,” he says. “We were left to our own devices. It was different because you could just get an average job and get by.”

Increasing emphasis is being placed on the provision of careers guidance – it is compulsory for independent careers guidance to be provided in schools in England for pupils aged 12 to 18. For an industry in the middle of a skills crisis, this should represent a sizeable opportunity to target the next generation.

However, CN has found that while attitudes have improved towards the sector, there is still uncertainty over who should be responsible for attracting the next generation of talent.

The barriers hindering students from seeing construction as a potential career option include the ever-lengthening list of responsibilities of teachers and a lack of understanding on the part of both students and their parents about the industry and its roles.

The Construction Skills Network report for 2019-23 forecasts a requirement for an extra 168,500 workers in the next five years. Are schools doing enough to portray the industry as an attractive option for the next generation?

 ‘They look at you blankly’

A consistent struggle faced by those attempting to promote a career in construction comes from a poor understanding of the industry from secondary school pupils.

“They look at you blankly generally; I don’t think children have an opinion on construction,” says Alison Watson, chief executive and founder of education consultancy Class of Your Own, which created an accredited learning programme, Design Engineer Construct.

A land surveyor by trade, Ms Watson set up the business with architect Dan Gibson in 2009 with the aim of encouraging students, teachers and parents to recognise careers in architecture, engineering and construction as highly skilled opportunities, with very real future employment prospects.

She was inspired to do so after working as a surveyor on Building Schools for the Future (BSF) – a government programme that subsidised the rebuilding or enhancement of secondary school buildings.

Lack of visibility

In 2003, the then schools minister David Miliband and secretary of state Charles Clarke described in the BSF consultation document that the new buildings “should inspire learning” and be a “source of pride and practical resource for the community”.

But Ms Watson tells CN she recalls surveying visits to schools where students “didn’t have a clue what was going on on the other side of the hoardings”.

And a lack of visibility of industry roles was an issue identified in a report published in April by consultant Stace.

There’s such scrutiny now to produce the results at the end of two years in the form of GCSEs. Teachers can do more for our industry if they are just allowed to do what they sign up for”

It worked with the Construction Youth Trust and surveyed 800 UK teenagers between 16 and 18 in an effort to understand the next generation’s perception of the industry.

The Next Gen Index report concluded that only 7 per cent of those surveyed would choose construction as their first choice of career. This compares with 29 per cent who chose medicine/healthcare.

It also highlighted the lack of awareness around the different types of construction roles available. Indeed, 41 per cent of all respondents said they were unaware of what a quantity surveyor was.

This was prevalent for other roles with 78 per cent and 65 per cent of respondents saying respectively they were only somewhat aware or unaware of what a building surveyor or structural engineer was.

Stace partner Gareth Sinnamon says the survey results surprised him. “I’m not sure if it’s necessarily driven by negativity, it’s just a lack of appreciation,” he says.

“One of the points we’ve made is IT and technology is one of the big new industries that kids want to get into.” Mr Sinnamon believes this appeal can be adapted to include the construction sector because the industry is “looking to employ people who are advanced in technology skills”.

Overworked teachers and cynical parents

While few would deny there is a knowledge gap regarding the benefits of a career in construction, who is best placed to take responsibility for attracting the younger generation – schools or the industry itself – is a matter of debate.

Ms Watson says schoolteachers have the influence and responsibility to engage the students, given the large amount of time they spend with them in the classroom. She believes teachers can have the biggest impact in getting more young people to join the industry and that teaching built environment skills within the curriculum will help.

“It needs to be taught, you can’t impact kids with a couple of hours in assembly. You’ve got to work at the relationship and the best piece of advice I could give to the construction industry is, don’t [think only about the] short term.”

Based on her experience of working with education professionals, Ms Watson says there are other challenges that prevent teachers from helping promote a career in the sector.

“I’ve never known teachers under such pressure as they are now,” she says. “It’s their fault if a child brings a knife into school, it’s their fault if a child isn’t doing their homework, it’s their fault if they are not meeting their target exam results

“Teachers got into schools to teach,” Ms Watson adds. “They didn’t get into teaching to be social workers – the joy of teaching for some has certainly gone.

There’s such scrutiny now to produce the results at the end of two years in the form of GCSEs. Teachers can do more for our industry if they are just allowed to do what they sign up for.”

In Stace’s survey of teenagers, teachers were rated highly as key influencers of career choice, ahead of siblings and friends and only slightly behind young people’s own perceptions of good vocations.

“It’s important to form relationships so you can go back and deepen the understanding of the careers advisers in the schools, so they can advocate the industry”

However, parents/guardians were ranked as holding the most sway with youths. Ms Watson has found parents can often be “massively sceptical” about construction.

One student who attended her course had a parent who was initially against him pursuing a career in construction. When he told his mother he wanted to take the Class of Your Own course she said: “Over my dead body.” “It wasn’t a subject she recognised,” Ms Watson tells CN.

“It was only when her boy won a major award, completed a Mott Macdonald apprenticeship aged 16, and then went to university [that] she cried and said: ‘I was so wrong, he could have missed his chance because I was so dead against it’.”

For Stace’s Mr Sinnamon, responsibility for attracting the next generation of talent lies with the sector, not schools.

“The industry has the responsibility to highlight the positives and how diverse it is. We are all guilty of seeing construction as hard-hats and hi-vis, [but] it’s way more diverse than that.

“A lot of this [engagement] needs to be driven top-down; industry organisations really need to take a lead in terms of co-ordination.”

However, Mr Sinnamon concedes there needs to be a willingness from education professionals too, adding that it can be challenging to arrange visits with schools when working around rigid timescales. “The mindset in terms of teachers and schools and how they think and operate is different to business environments because schools work around timetables – our environment is not as rigid.”

Sustaining relationships

Galliford Try Building North West social value manager for the region Joy Woods has visited schools to promote the industry to teenagers as part of CITB’s Construction Ambassador scheme (pictured).

The initiative reaches out to schools, especially those in deprived areas, and holds a variety of engagement events ranging from assemblies to workshops on a range of topics.

She says a broad approach, where parents, schools and industry take responsibility for careers guidance, will ensure the next generation’s view is not limited when it comes to any career.

“There’s evidence that shows it’s not just the schools who have the responsibility to promote careers, it’s the parents’ [too].”

Ms Woods says the best way to engage with schools and allow students to consider a career in the built environment is to create and sustain long-term relationships rather than solely focusing on one-off career talks. The social value manager, who used to be a teacher, says there is a lot of evidence showing that engagement programmes are more successful when they involve multiple interactions.

“Assemblies are a light-touch interaction that isn’t likely to have a deeper impact.

“It’s important to form relationships so you can go back and deepen the understanding of the careers advisers in the schools, so they can advocate the industry.”

Recalling his time in school, Munnelly Group director Paul David Munnelly, who was one of CN’s Rising Stars at the 2019 CN Awards, says an inclusion of built environment skills could help ensure students engage with the industry from an early age.

“My school never taught carpentry or engineering or anything similar like my parents’ generation would.” Mr Munnelly adds that those he knew in construction of a similar age to himself were there due to their families being involved in construction.

“Very few of my age group who didn’t already have a connection to construction then got into the industry.”

A common issue with the absence of engagement from young people can stem from a lack of understanding of the industry and the roles available. Whilst it is clear that attempts are being made to attract the next generation, the lack of joined-up thinking has considerably slowed this process.

Construction is in agreement that more young people are needed, but if it remains unclear where the responsibility of increasing industry understanding lies, it’s hard to see how the sector will continue to attract the talent it so desperately needs

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