There’s nothing like going back to school for making you feel your age. Everyone looks so young – even the teachers – and you find yourself using terrible phrases like “it wasn’t like that in my day…” There are computers everywhere, and children using them with a facility most of us can only envy. The subjects have changed, the qualifications are different and so are many of the pupils’ aspirations.
In the past few weeks, I have spent some time at two quite different educational establishments – a secondary school in Small Heath, Birmingham, and the construction faculty of Luton University. Both are impressive, and both have a lot to teach an industry that professes a desire to attract the brightest and best.
The Small Heath school has an impressive academic record, an inspirational headmaster and remarkably pleasant, well-behaved pupils. About 97% of them happen to be Asian, and virtually none would even consider a career in the construction industry. In July, a team from the Construction Confederation and the Construction Industry Training Board will spend two days at the school, explaining the range of careers available, introducing the pupils to successful business people, and giving them an opportunity to visit a local site and a design office.
Few of these pupils are interested in any type of manual work; many of them aspire to – and will be well qualified for – managerial or professional roles. At the moment, we are not even on their radar screens as potential employers. Over those two days in July, I hope to change that for at least a few of them and, perhaps even more important, to find out what governs their career choices and what attracts them to the jobs they would like to do. I suspect that our preoccupations may not be theirs, and so our brief is to listen as much as we talk.
Luton University was an entirely different experience, but no less interesting. Again, the prevalence of computers was striking – a huge computer room is the busiest section of the library, where most students prepare their coursework and do research on the Internet.
For them, IT literacy is not an end in itself, but a basic study tool. One major contractor told me recently that more than 90% of its graduate trainees had obtained all their information about the company from its web site. This raises some interesting questions. When did you last look at your web site? Who is responsible for updating it and how often does it change? Does it sell your company, or is it just a mish-mash of general information? For everyone under 30, it’s probably your most important public face, and soon those under-30s will be your clients and specifiers, as well as your potential employees.
Tony Blair’s slogan was education, education, education. Perhaps it should be ours
The best – and most nerve-wracking – part of my Luton visit was an hour-long discussion with a group of undergraduates on why they were taking a construction course, and where they hoped to end up. They were polite, but slightly bemused as to why a strange woman from an organisation they had never heard of wanted to talk to them, and the free coffee and biscuits were obviously far more of a draw than my presence. The conversation was distinctly stilted for the first 10 minutes but then it turned to the students’ views of each others’ roles, and as they were a mixed group of architects, interior designers and builders, sparks soon began to fly.
“A good builder should be able to build anything I design, and if he can’t, he’s not a good builder.”
“How can we build safely, quickly and to a predictable price if we don’t even know if the blasted thing will stand up?”
I paraphrase, but you get the drift. It was as if Sir Michael, Sir John et al had never put pen to paper, and yet these young people were not uninformed, they were well taught, bright and articulate, and most of them had worked on site. Their comments were a sharp reminder that integrated teams and processes might be one of our major objectives, but we still have much work to do with the industry’s newest members, who by a process of osmosis or inclination often display very traditional attitudes.
The good news was that they genuinely enjoyed what they were studying. With only one exception, all of them agreed that they would be happy for their children to take up a career in construction. But with applications for construction-related courses declining by 20% at a time when applications across the board are rising by 30%, those courses might not even be available to the next generation.
Jennie Price is chief executive of the Construction Confederation.