The skills shortage facing the construction industry is all too often a headline news topic, but what is the North East doing to address the problem?
In this interview with Rob Charlton, CEO of Space Architects, Deni Chambers - Director of Creative and Digital Industries School at Newcastle College and Sophie Pickup, Learning and Development Manager at Northumbrian Water, we shine a light on the challenges and solutions to inspire a new generation into construction.
In February this year, as part of the UK's most innovative BIM event BIM Show Live, the event hosts, Space Architects wanted to engage with children and young adults in the North East to provide a taste of what it’s like to have a career in some of the UK’s top organisations which develop new and emerging technologies within the construction industry.
Space Architects partnered with Newcastle College and Northumbrian Water to create a high-tech day of learning to inspire and encourage the young audience into considering a career in construction. The day was a huge success and showed the diverse career choices that are on offer. But why does the construction industry struggle to attract the best talent, and what can we do about it?
We began by asking Rob and Sophie how it affects their sector.
Sophie: "In the energy and utility sectors, we know that there is a need to bring 221,000 new people into these industries by 2027. This isn’t just in construction or the type of manual work that people often associate with our sector. We employ a broad range of job roles, with a wide variety of skills and people types - we have teams of engineers, scientists, project managers, planners and customer services professionals in our operational areas. And a large business like Northumbrian Water needs to have all of the support functions you might find in any big company, administration, finance, legal, HR, information technology, data intelligence and analytics, communications and more.
"One of the significant challenges we face is the competition with other businesses for the best talent, so we work hard to create an employee proposition that is appealing to those people we want to attract."
Rob: "The skills shortage, and encouraging young adults into our industry is a huge concern. To put it simply, if we don’t attract the talent we won’t be productive or have a long-term future as a sector.
"Technology is advancing at an exponential rate and is reflected within the construction sector through our use of VR, AR, artificial intelligence, drones and robotics. Young people today are immersed in technology, so it's vital we show them that the industry is far more tech-driven than it once was."
Why do you think young people may not consider construction as a career choice?
Rob: "I believe we still have something of an image problem in that they have a perception that construction is just a manual labour role involving bricklaying and plastering.
"They see offices like Google with their slides, restaurants and relaxed working environments which have a distinct appeal to the younger generation. Perhaps what they don't understand is the creative minds it took to build these offices in the first place!
"It is also crucial for us to change the stereotype that construction is a career choice for men only. We need diversity within the industry which ensures we attract and retain a broad set of skills to secure the innovation happening in our built environment."
Deni: "I would agree with Rob about the misconception of the traditional image of construction. Young people aren’t always aware of the career routes available within the industry, and the general public isn’t particularly aware of BIM (Building Information Modelling) and the critical part it plays in construction, architecture and engineering.
Sophie: "There are misconceptions about what a career in construction means. Of course, there are some manual ‘front line’ roles but there is also a whole array of other careers that organise, plan, purchase, design etc.
"The great thing is that most industries now offer a chance to put digital skills to work in exciting and innovative ways, and we are no different, with new technologies creating many opportunities.”
It's clear the construction industry offers many roles, including high-tech paths beyond the hard hats and muddy boots image, but how do you promote the innovation happening within the industry?
Sophie: "Innovation is part of our business as usual. We regularly hold design sprints, using the concepts created by the likes of Google to find new solutions to problems and data hacks. We also have a lot of exciting innovations within the water industry that we like to talk about on our social media platforms and in the media.”
Rob: "We are continually working hard to change perceptions and show an alternative side to construction. This means spending time with schools to show the opportunities available and to excite them with technology and design.
"This was a driving factor behind our decision to host the 'Inspiration Day' at our BIM Show Live event, but it's also crucial we work with schools to encourage them to come into our office to see what we do first hand. They need practical application rather than a talk by a man in a suit!”
What can industry and academia achieve if they partner efforts to encourage young people into the industry?
Deni: "By creating partnerships with companies like Space Architects, we can showcase real career paths and provide work experience opportunities – all of this inspires people because they can see where their skills can take them.
"As a skills provider, our job is to create a pipeline of talent for employers, so these partnerships are essential for both sides. They allow us to tailor our courses and provision so that we can produce work-ready individuals with the right skill sets for the sector."
Sophie: "Industry and academia working together is an excellent opportunity to open people’s minds to what sort of career opportunities are out there, through site visits, tailored activities and well-informed teaching. We can help young people recognise that many peoples’ careers follow paths they wouldn’t have expected, and it is when you start working that many people find out about different possibilities."
"The other real opportunity to be grasped is for the industry to help shape the curriculum, specific vocational qualifications and training and the soft skills that young people develop. It is a chance to ensure young people are better prepared for the world of work generally, and also for specific industries."
Rob: "We need to work together to promote academic success and practical delivery, and it's this idea of practical delivery where apprenticeships can help.
"According to the CITB’s latest figures, the rate of people applying to be construction apprentices remains strong, and this is down to employers like ourselves who are committed to developing the next generation of professionals."
How do you influence the younger generation into construction and STEM subjects?
Deni: "It’s difficult to steer people in a specific direction but giving them exposure to the industry and the opportunities that lie within it is vital.
"Linking with industry and companies such as Space Architects is critical. It means we have a more prominent voice to shout about how big the industry is and the potential for its future growth, which can make an impact, especially with parents."
Finally, what message would you give to the next generation to encourage them into a new, high-tech construction industry?
Deni: "Construction isn’t necessarily about getting your hands dirty. BIM encompasses a lot of current and transferable skills – it’s digital, and it’s creative, which young people may not automatically associate with the construction industry.”
Sophie: "Open your mind to new ideas about things you think you already know. Challenge what you believe and explore any opportunity you can, to find out more about the real world of work. The world of work is continuously evolving as technology advances, and that creates new career opportunities."
Rob: "A career in the built environment provides real opportunity for you to make a physical impact on that environment.
"Our industry is innovative and technology-driven, so it's time to abandon the traditional image and embrace the exciting future on offer."
For more information on Creative and Digital Industries at Newcastle College, click here.