The dearth of construction industry professionals is becoming as serious as the skills shortage on sites. And so few school leavers are enrolling on built environment courses, some universities are scrapping them. So, asks Martin Spring, where will the talent come from to carry through all those urban regeneration programmes?
Lecturers in building degree courses should seriously consider switching their subject area to creative writing. Application for degree courses in imaginative writing jumped by an astounding 276% this year, whereas the traditional, solid, vocational subjects of building, electronics and electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering fell by 2.5%, 3.3%, 1.2% and 0.8% respectively, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Departments of planning and landscape design, so vital to the UK's burgeoning urban regeneration programmes, did even worse, with applications dropping 7.1% and 21.2% respectively. Of all the built environment disciplines, only architecture shows a healthy growth in applications – up 8.9% on last year.

Market-orientated universities are responding by closing down courses that fail to attract sufficient numbers, feeding the vicious spiral. Luton is the latest university to wind down BSc courses in construction management, building surveying and architectural technology.

This is no sudden blip. Numbers of UK-resident first-year students enrolling for courses in civil engineering, building and town and country planning have been falling steadily for almost a decade, according the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Added to the educational crisis is the unquantified loss of students who are turned off construction as a career during their courses and early work experience. Mark Whitby, president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, says: "There's more to work experience than just giving people a job. If they leave through dissatisfaction, then they're lost to the industry."

As the government's construction programmes of urban regeneration, transport infrastructure, hospitals, schools and housing continues to grow, there are cries of alarm from consultants and contractors.

Sheila Hoile, director of training strategy at the Construction Industry Training Board, says: "There is increasing angst among employers who can't get the people they want. It is seriously compromising the work they do."

For Turlogh O'Brien, incoming president of the Construction Industry Council – which represents all the construction professions – and deputy chairman of consulting engineer Arup, an even bigger problem than the low ratio of applicants to jobs is their quality. "You can now get into a university engineering course with A level grades as low as D or E. And the situation is worse in electrical engineering, which is seen as the poor relation to electronics in universities."

The poor image of the construction industry remains the most often cited reason why building courses fail to attract school leavers. Stephen Barthorpe, lecturer at Glamorgan University in Cardiff, says: "Television is a strong influence on school leavers. They see glamorous programmes like medical dramas, so they apply for courses in forensic science. You don't see much on TV about well-paid construction jobs. The building industry is still seen as dirty work."

The CITB's Sheila Hoile argues that parental influence is also strong. "Parents see building sites as unsafe and cold, wet and dirty, and they don't want their children working on them."

Poor image is coupled with required subjects that pupils find difficult – particularly physics and maths. The ICE's Whitby claims there has been a 30% decrease in physics A level passes in the past five years. "The subject is a big turn-off. Physics is a must for our profession, so it's not surprising there's a decrease in course applicants."

Television is a strong influence on school leavers. You don’t see much on TV about well-paid construction jobs

Stephen Barthorpe, lecturer, Glamorgan University

Institutions such as the Chartered Institution of Building have devised postgraduate courses for converting students who have studied non-vocational subjects, (business studies, economics and geography, for example), to construction industry qualifications. In quantity surveying, three top-league firms, Davis Langdon & Everest, EC Harris and Gardiner & Theobald, are sponsoring just such a part-time postgraduate course at Reading University.

Electrical engineering is widely regarded as the weakest link in the building industry, attracting few and often low-quality graduates. A few services engineering practices such as Max Fordham & Partners and Mark Whitby's firm, Whitby Bird & Partners, have gone as far as preferring graduates in pure physics to those in applied building services. "Building services engineers have a very narrow perspective," says Whitby.

Arup, the UK's most renowned building engineering consultancy, is so concerned about the low-grade skills of its new recruits that it has set up its own internal design school. "Engineering education seems a bit lacking in creative design, and graduates can't think laterally," says an Arup spokesperson. "Modern engineers are doing much more design, so we have to develop these skills ourselves."

On an industry-wide front, the CITB, the quango set up to promote training in trade skills, has, since 1999, also turned its attention to promoting professional education, recruitment and retention. In January 2001, the CITB launched its Making Connections campaign and set up a government-sponsored taskforce to review progress. The campaign brings together employers, professional and higher education institutions in an ambitiously wide-ranging programme of initiatives focused on improving degree curriculums and working with schools.

Making Connections initiatives include discussions with vice-chancellors to introduce more flexible courses based on modules, which would have more appeal to students. Broad-based foundation courses in construction and the built environment are also being promoted so that students can delay selecting their specialist subject until they acquire a better understanding of what it involves. As for working with schools, there is ongoing commitment to the annual National Construction Week (3-10 October 2002) and a programme of "taster days" for pupils.

The impact of such an institution-backed campaign will inevitably be slow. Sheila Hoile says: "We have set ourselves a target to reverse the decline in recruitment within the next three or four years." The Making Connections taskforce, which last met in July, has yet to finalise a report calling for the government to recognise the special predicament of construction education and its importance to delivering its regeneration programme. One suggestion has been to waive fees for construction courses.

Hoile pinpoints three major challenges facing the CITB campaign. "First, the construction industry must be customer-oriented, by appealing directly to young people. Second, we have to bring together the three groups of employers, professional institutions and higher education institutions. And third, when young people eventually get out into the industry, they need proper support and respect from their employers. Respect for people is the key to it all: until we do that properly, people will leave even if we get them into the industry to begin with."

To CIC's Turlogh O'Brien, the building industry presents huge opportunities that are as yet barely recognised by young people. "Sustainability of buildings and the environment is something worthwhile that youngsters can identify with. Saving the planet is a worthwhile cause. These are matters for the industry to promote."

Phil Morgan of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association stresses the uphill task facing those attempting to promote the industry: "Until construction loses its poor image, sending a few leaflets to schools won't change much. And it's not just the kids you have to convince – you need to convince careers officers, teachers and parents, too."