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Attracting young people into construction industry a must

With many UK construction workers reaching retirement age in the next few years, enticing young people into the industry has never been more important. For Paul Richards, Managing Director of Aquarian Cladding Systems, who came into the industry from school, the potential is out there. Here, he discusses why the education system needs to do more to help, why the perception of the industry needs to change – and why now could be the best chance the industry has to get young people on board.

The lifeblood of any industry can only be sustained by replenishing it with young people. New blood allows an industry to grow, push boundaries and come up with fresh ideas. And the construction industry is no different.

There are no exact figures for the average age of a construction worker however it is generally estimated that almost 50% are over 45. And that number is rising so if we conservatively guess the average age this year to be 45, it is fair to assume that it will be 46 next year and 47 the following year in the absence of new blood coming through.

The problem will be worse if Brexit shuts the door on the skilled European workers on which the UK construction relies, as it is estimated that almost three-quarters of all non-UK construction workers are under the age of 45.

The Government has announced its intentions to build more affordable housing and improve the nation’s estate of hospitals, schools, etc. But how? Clearly, solutions to the challenge are urgently required if we are to avoid a point where the industry can no longer deliver everything that is asked of it.

And the sad thing is, it really shouldn’t be this way.

Leaving the industry at 12 years old

The most frustrating thing is that we lose our potential to recruit from a very young age. Think about it – pre-school children become interested in the industry whilst watching Bob the Builder, get their hands dirty with LEGO, and become designers with Minecraft.

So, they are influenced from a young age to pick up the tools like a builder and create like an engineer or architect, before leaving the industry whilst barely a teenager!

We must get to the root of it and challenge what so enthralled them to watch it, play at it, and be creative when IT literate, only to then drop it. What is it that prevents them from continuing their journey and, in effect, leave the industry at the age of 12?

It can’t be anything other than the education system because somewhere along the line our potential employees are persuaded to do something else. Perhaps teachers and parents are dismissive of the industry? We must work harder to encourage and entice students of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM subjects) to put their new-found skills and knowledge into an industry of opportunity.

One which is the second highest-paid industry sector and makes a long-term difference to the way we live like possibly no other industry.

Perception is key

One of the main problems is that young people see construction through a very narrow window – namely that it’s dirty, low paid, ‘outdoorsy’ and for people who don’t go to college. When they see a construction site, they see the muck and the mud but not the huge numbers of people that enable the project to happen. These are perceptions that need to change and it’s fair to say that as an industry our PR could be better.

We need to get the message out to young people and their parents that construction is a highly-skilled and highly-paid industry that offers amazing opportunities for personal development, a lifetime career, and the chance to work with some brilliant people. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career in the construction industry. It came completely by accident, but I have no regrets.

It’s vital that as an industry we pull together to shrug off the negative stereotypes that make it harder to attract young people. We need to demonstrate what the industry’s about through schools and inspire students from an early age so that we grab them when they are deciding their future.

We need to engage with the next generation to not only join the construction industry but also stay and build long and rewarding careers. It’s imperative that we create initiatives to encourage and support youngsters at the earliest opportunity. As an example, Constructing Excellence provides young professionals with the opportunity to network, share best practice and celebrate success through its Generation for Change (G4C) network and are the next generation’s voice of the UK built environment industry.

Construction companies also need to be encouraged to work closer with schools to demonstrate the great work they do and the opportunities for our future workforce.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Now could be the perfect time to drive the message home. Many young people who are just leaving school, colleges and university are being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic so a career in a stable industry is surely enticing.

The Government’s New Deal to ‘Build, Build, Build’, the Future Homes Standard 2025 and the UK’s commitment to Net Zero Carbon will only help stimulate the industry to reach new heights.

Ours is a multi-billion-pound industry that is changing rapidly. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) are on the rise and using a suite of innovative new ideas, from volumetric units produced offsite to digital methods of design and engineering. Sites will be safer & cleaner, hours on site will be reduced and technology such as VR, AR and BIM makes for a very exciting future for the more IT-literate.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to attract more young people into the industry. For the individual, the opportunities for a dynamic career are endless and for the industry we must tackle the skills shortage and safeguard its future. As Winston Churchill famously said “Never let a good crisis go to waste”!

Working with architects, contractors, developers and installation specialists, Aquarian’s cladding systems have been used on many award-winning buildings across a wide range of sectors. Paul has more than 34 years in the industry and is also on the board of directors for Construction Excellence South West.

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