Other professions may be more appealing to children, but they don’t all have their own GCSE or conduct multimillion-pound projects on school premises. It’s time construction made these factors count
Have you ever noticed that if you ask a child what they’d like to do with their lives, the answer is more likely to feature them appearing on The X Factor or Sky Sports than on BBC 2’s Restoration or Channel 4’s Grand Designs?
Maybe the built environment is not as glamorous as being pilloried by Simon Cowell, or maybe it is just that whether architect or project manager, cost consultant or craftsman, we just don’t market ourselves as well as some others do, and hence are always in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to careers options.
However, all is not lost, as I found when I recently helped to judge a series of architectural models at the RIBA. It was gratifying to see that sustainability, renewable energy and disabled access had all sparked the imagination of the young contributors, most of whom were only 11 years old.
With the support of the RIBA, an organisation called Our Hut is taking the built environment into primary schools and moving our industry from the Bob the Builder level to something that features as a serious topic on the teaching agenda.
Our Hut had themed its model-making competition around a nearby vacant plot. Having assessed the neighbourhood, site orientation and development potential, children were asked to prepare their models for the proposed scheme.
The excitement that built up to the winners being announced would have rivalled the frenzied anticipation of the Stirling prize.
Unfortunately, this activity would appear to be the exception rather than the norm. Although the Building Schools for the Future initiative means we are in the midst of a massive build programme, few schools actually involve the children in the process or bring the construction team into the classroom as the project develops. All sorts of excuses, such as the ubiquitous health and safety one, are used to keep the youngsters away, but the truth is more basic: teachers and career advisers seem neither to understand nor appreciate that our industry can be a gateway to fulfilment, achievement and, for the lucky few, significant reward.
Although we are in the midst of a massive build programme, few schools actually involve the children in the process
However, there is in the UK an increasing acknowledgement of the influence of design on people’s wellbeing. We are still global leaders in the world of architecture and engineering and few can dispute that men like Norman Foster stride the world stage. It is good to see him and some of his peers taking part in the Cabe-sponsored schools visit programme. This scheme, which is called How Places Work, is based on the premise that when it comes to understanding architecture and the built environment there is no substitute for experience. More than 12,000 11-14 year olds will be given the chance to visit inspiring buildings with some of England’s most passionate design gurus.
But how many of those in the position to influence young minds realise that our industry makes up 15% of Britain’s GDP? Perhaps the new construction GCSE will make a difference. Although it targets a slightly older age profile, this will give not only our youngsters but all their teachers an insight into an industry that employs vast numbers of men and women.
This is a really significant initiative, as many in our industry bemoan the shortage of skilled people at all levels. We all look to training non-cognates as a solution, or importing “talent” from overseas, but surely if we could influence primary schools to encourage children to look at our world through positive eyes then we could be laying the foundations for a self-generating labour force of the future.
We cannot disguise the fact that building sites are dusty, messy places that seem unappealing to many. Also we do not want to encourage children to go exploring in these areas of potential danger on their own and getting into trouble. Nevertheless, think of the excitement of seeing a gleaming building arising phoenix-like from the debris and detritus once all the work is finished.
There are so many ways that children can carve their own niche. It is not just a choice of construction or design, crafts or management. From IT to marketing to accountancy, our industry uses all these skills, and as the UK’s biggest employer it needs a constant supply of new talent.
So it may well be that initiatives like Our Hut are just what we need to crowbar our kids off the sofa and show them there is life beyond Robbie Williams and David Beckham, and that working in the built environment is more than just Bob the Builder.
Richard Steer is senior partner in Gleeds