With many workers considering a career change and students looking for guidance, construction has an opportunity to improve the way it sells itself and attract some much-needed new talent, writes Rachel Davis 


Rachel Davis

Rachel Davis is a director at Perega, a civil and structural engineering consultancy

As the pandemic finally recedes and UK construction starts looking forwards, the sector faces myriad recruitment challenges, from the growing post-Brexit skills gap and people re-evaluating their lives post-lockdown to the disruption of our education system over the past two years and its impact on future talent.

Multiple covid-related lockdowns have forced extended closures on schools and other education institutions leading to a disrupted curriculum, a push towards online learning, a re-evaluation of exam systems and a restructure of the day’s teaching to maintain social distancing and to make up for lost time. meanwhile many school and college leavers have been left in a state of limbo.

As many as 60% of UK workers are believed to be looking for a career change as a direct result of the pandemic, either out of necessity or a desire to work from home, in order to help others, to learn new skills or to retire early. To help address some of these issues, the government has set up its lifetime skills guarantee, which provides the opportunity to gain new qualifications for in-demand skills for free, including engineering and construction. There may be some fine-tuning to do to make this truly accessible, but it is a good start. 

Amid the uncertainty caused by recent events, I believe there are opportunities for UK construction to take a reinvigorated approach to recruitment. So, what are the ways that companies can help to improve their access to talent?

Opening the windows of perception

People are drawn to careers with good visibility where they can easily see how they might fit in. To its detriment, construction is too often perceived through a narrow window, offering limited views of muck and mud, while all the activities and huge numbers of people that go into making a project happen are often invisible. 

>> Also read: Construction has an image problem that is harming recruitment. We have to change

Many traditional forms of promoting careers tend to be passive and unidirectional. This is not unique to construction. Posters, career fairs and token days or weeks are a good start, but often fall short of sparking genuine interest in built environment professions. We need to take a more active approach and demonstrate what it is really about.

Know your audience

With so many adults looking to change careers, we are seeing the recruitment pool diversifying. So how can we attract people with a varied skillset and professional experience into the built environment? 

While the government is promoting its free qualifications to give adults new skills, construction needs to look closely at the prospects afforded by its apprenticeships and entry level positions. 

The key reason for taking a new direction in 2021 is a worsening job outlook. Therefore anyone joining the industry with years of working experience will need to see a clear career path ahead, signposted with opportunities for progression. People also want a better work-life balance, so companies with a flexible employee-centric approach will have a better chance of attracting talent. 

Of course, engagement with local secondary schools is a logical step. By actively reaching out to students in early key stage 3, we stand a chance of being heard before the noise of year 9 and the  choosing of options. Opportunities arise throughout the year for striking up a conversation, from assemblies and form time to maths, design and technology or even art lessons.

Consider talking with schools about their end-of-year planning. Many will be scoping out educational trips and excursions for younger year groups, or interesting work experience placements for KS4 and 5. When properly planned, work placements can be the deciding factor in a student choosing a particular career path, so it pays to invest and engage as early as possible.

Changing perspective

Equally important in the drive to recruit, and address misconceptions is winning the hearts and minds of parents/guardians and school staff. I am often dismayed, when speaking with children and parents alike, to learn that they think engineers mend photocopiers and washing machines, while buildings are solely constructed by builders. Consequently, many parents steer their children away from the profession, viewing it as a career path with a dead end.

Parents have a significant influence over students’ views and career choices, so include them in the conversation, whether through parents’ evenings, a letter home or a simple invitation to talk. If they view engineering and construction as too difficult, dirty or inferior, then our work with students will be all the more challenging.

Maintaining relevance

Any HR specialist will tell you that a learn-test-rinse-repeat approach is outdated and ineffective. In contrast, process-based assessments allow students to demonstrate how they think and learn, with the added benefit of teaching essential life skills, including problem solving and having the confidence to fail. All useful for a career in the built environment.

Education systems need to be brave, considering an updated approach, moving away from focusing on rote learning, test taking and traditional, comfortable subjects. The shift to the remote classroom has forced schools across the country to overhaul how they deliver lessons and assess learning, demonstrating their capability to respond to change. 

Rather than A-level maths, English and history as we know them, a cross-curricular programme which promotes intersectionality and a practical approach might be more suitable for cultivating the skills needed by today’s students to solve tomorrow’s problems.

One step at a time

These kind of changes take time and slow, steady movement. We need to rally together and appeal to the Department for Education to make these changes, repeatedly, until it starts to listen. Construction is not the only sector which stands to benefit from a system more focused on critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. 

We also need to cast the spotlight on our own recruitment and hiring processes to make sure we are outwardly prioritising the same skills and open-mindedness we promote to students, staff and parents. Emphasis needs to shift from achievements to ability. I am not solely interested in high scores on written exams; a good recruit has ideas, substance and drive. 

Construction finds itself at a crossroads, with a choice between maintaining the status quo, finding a way back to “normality” and forging ahead, building on the changes the country, and the world, have undergone in the past 18 months. Schools and workplaces alike need to acknowledge that the world has changed. Rising to the challenge may be costly and uncomfortable for many but, when it comes to the future and sustainability of the industry, we should spare no expense.

Rachel Davis is a director at Perega, a civil and structural engineering consultancy