Nick Jones on how to recruit teenagers using websites, competitions and speed-dating

The construction industry is trying ever more ingenious ruses in a effort to demonstrate to teenagers that it can offer varied and exciting careers. The latest innovations include virtual careers advisers, hands-on challenges and speed-dating-style recruitment.

CITB-ConstructionSkills has just launched a web-based careers advice service, available at The service is aimed at young people who are looking for a career in construction, but are not quite sure which area is right for them. The claim from the site’s software company, Synthetix, is that the system “allows the user to have a conversation with the SmartAgent”. Although this might be overstating its capabilities somewhat, the online questionnaire proves a useful means of filtering the training body’s careers database.

A teenager using the system has to provide answers to six pre-formulated questions, then the “careers adviser” software whittles down the career options that would suit the user. It might not qualify as a conversation, but the system is certainly a talking point: the site had more than 10,000 hits in its first month. Even if it helps to focus only a few wandering teenage minds, it will surely be seen as a good thing.

However, the site is best suited to teenagers who already know that they want to pursue a career in construction. The problem is that it will do nothing to reach the many young people don’t know enough about the industry, and what it actually involves, to reach the point of even considering it as an option.

Kat Reil, assistant for training and development at engineering contractor May Gurney, knows this more than most: it is part of her job to try to sell engineering as a career option to the bright young things of tomorrow. “Obviously there is a shortage of graduates and school-leavers entering the industry, and we looked at why that was,” she says. “We found that young people’s perceptions are shaped by what they learn at school – and construction is often presented to them as an unglamorous and second-rate option.

“Rather than start to undo that misconception at 16 and 17, it made sense to back to the crucial time before kids take their GCSE options – at 13 and 14,” Reil explains.

Most recently, this involved organising last month’s May Gurney Challenge at Anglia Polytechnic University in Chelmsford, Essex. Seventy teenagers from five schools were given a fictitious brief to come up with a means of transporting radioactive waste to a new waste recycling plant across an environmentally sensitive area. Scale models were designed, built and then put to the test in a series of head-to-head races across an obstacle course, built to replicate an inhospitable landscape.

The winning team, from Brentwood School in Brentwood, Essex, was presented with a £500 cheque to put towards engineering equipment for their school. Each team member was also given individual tool kits.

Reil says: “The feedback from all the schools was that the students found it very interesting, which is great considering the attention span of most 14-year-olds.”

May Gurney hasn’t yet tried an online version, but its methods of enticing the next generation are clearly in touch with the modern world. Last year, it took part in a Learning and Skills Council speed-dating-style recruitment event entitled Meet Your Match, which brought together local employers and students for a series of quick-fire interviews to see if there were any matches.

The fact that there are companies out there prepared to face this kind of interrogation suggests that today’s schoolchildren will be less ignorant of construction than in the past.