Graduates are generally a motivated, intelligent and enthusiastic bunch, so why does the construction industry make it so difficult for them to join?
It’s only a word, but it’s guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of any graduate looking for a job. It is “experience” and you can see it on almost every job spec that sounds remotely worth applying for. Which is a problem because most graduates don’t have any, or at least they don’t have the right type or amount.
Of course, I realise that for many technical jobs in the industry, academic achievement is not enough. A certain level of practical knowledge, particularly in the area of health and safety, is a prerequisite. But it does seem to me that many graduates come up against unnecessary obstacles – this is something I do have experience of – and spend months or years in low-paid, low-status roles before they are trusted to take on more responsibility. Those wasted years mean the industry is missing out on a potentially huge pool of talent.
Any person starting a new job, regardless of the number of years they have been working in the industry, will require a certain amount of training to get up to speed. So why not consider an enthusiastic graduate for that well paid, responsible job? It may require more of an effort from the rest of the team initially, but if you have the correct candidate that effort won’t have been wasted.
An industry that is crying out for new blood can ill afford to close off entry routes to those able and willing to take on responsibility early. One way to increase opportunities for graduates is to improve access to industry courses that lead to professional qualifications. What about having more graduate training schemes? Could companies club together to set up training days for all their recruits?
But before we even get to that stage, we have to entice talented people before they graduate. Any ambitious, organised person – the type we want in our industry – will start to consider life after university or college while still studying. So we need to be visible and accessible to them when they are making decisions about their future.
One way to make students aware of our industry is to attend the university “milk rounds”. These were very popular at my university, partially because of the free food on offer, but also because students were genuinely concerned about finding a career. Who wouldn’t be when you are riddled with debt and you now, after two decades of academia, have the chance to earn some decent money.
‘Milk rounds’ were very popular at my university, partially because of the free food
There is a lot of competition for high achieving engineering graduates; multinationals and the financial sector are able to offer tempting graduate training schemes with good remuneration packages. To compete with these sectors, the construction industry needs to promote itself and offer comparable advantages. If we fail to catch them at this crucial stage we risk losing them to other industries, maybe forever – it takes a brave individual to change career direction and opt for construction later.
Of course, it’s not just up to the industry to prove itself. Graduates need to demonstrate an settled interest in the sector if they want to convince an employer of their worth. The most effective way to do that is work experience. During most academic holidays, I was either temping in my home town or on work experience that was linked to my degree course. To list a few, I worked for the council, a television broadcaster, a civil engineer, a biological research company, a college and a motorway service station.
Every single one of those experiences helped to form my opinions about working life. I was always observing, always learning something new. If those companies had not allowed me to spend a few weeks with them, I may never have studied engineering and I certainly would not be doing the job I am now.
To any people aspiring to join the construction industry who may be reading this, I would say do not to underestimate the power of enthusiasm. Do not be put off joining the industry because of any apparent obstacles. If you do not receive replies, let alone rejections, to your application forms, do not despair. There are exciting, responsible construction-related jobs out there, it’s just that we’re not very good at telling you about them. You could say it’s an area we need more experience in.
Katherine Bailey is an assistant project manager for Emcor and chair of G4C – Generation for Collaboration – the young people’s board of Constructing Excellence in the Built Environment. She is also one of the 10 young professionals on Building’s Graduate Advisory Panel.