You'd think the construction industry would be desperate to find bright young students. In fact, it seems to go out of its way to put them off. We went back to college for some hard lessons.
"The companies need to look after us more. They know we're coming through from the universities but they just don't care about us at all. When I started on site for my sandwich year, the people in head office didn't know I was there, I wasn't paid what I was promised and they didn't give me a mentor, which they were supposed to do. I had to take on all the responsibility of a site manager – hiring and firing, health and safety, everything – but I was getting just a student wage.

"I thought about it a lot when I was off-duty; I fretted about it. It was really hard, and pretty nasty. There were times when I was really scared. What I liked least was the heavy lifting work, because there are a lot of procedures you're supposed to go through that I didn't know enough about. We had to take a tower crane down once – for that, you have to shut the whole site down. I was lucky that nothing major went wrong. There was a lot resting on my shoulders. I'd never go back to work for that company again."

This is the strange tale of Martin Caldwell, a 22-year-old construction management student at Oxford Brookes University who found himself supervising more than 40 people on a £13m job. It is strange because he is talking about an industry that desperately needs to attract people like him but is instead treating them with a mixture of disdain and apathy.

For example, it can't be bothered to find them work placements. "I tried to get a summer job to see what it was like as a trainee engineer," says Nolan Byrne, who is studying for a national diploma in construction at Reading College, a further education facility. "I found that nobody would take me on. Companies aren't interested in you until you're qualified. The industry needs to make it more of a welcoming business."

And it is not just the students who could do with more support – many colleges are struggling with funding and are desperate for the industry to help. "We really need more industry sponsorship – for example, to maintain our machines and workshops," says Ann Osler, head of Reading College's technology faculty. "The industry has got to start putting something back and helping us, because out budgets are being cut and cut. Just a couple of thousand pounds would make such a difference. We have to run as a business now. We struggle to keep going when times are bad."

The image of the industry is one of universities' main stumbling blocks in recruiting high-flying students, and that's not something they can change on their own. John Raftery, dean of Oxford Brookes University's school of the built environment, wants to see more effort from companies: "Construction doesn't always seem to be the most attractive industry to work in. The industry is doing things to improve that and we're willing to work with them but we can't do it on our own," he says. "It's a shared problem and so we have to have a shared answer. The industry needs to ensure it will deliver a great career – that includes health and safety, paying people well, and making sites clean and attractive places to work."

For love or money
The failure of firms to carry out in practice what the trade associations and think-tanks talk about in theory is all the worse because for once the recruitment market is moving in their favour.

Despite the industry's treatment of students, an increasing number of young people are keen to make careers in it because of its earning potential – many of the students Building spoke to admitted that they are motivated by the money that they thought was available.

I had to take on all the responsibility of a site manager – hiring and firing, health and safety, everything – but I was getting just a student wage. there was a lot resting on my shoulders. I’d never go back to work for that company again

Many aspire to set up their own businesses, and press reports of the £55,000 paid to skilled workers Heathrow Terminal 5 and the soaring amounts earned by plumbers and carpenters have added fuel to the fire.

Paul Newman, head of Reading College's construction and built environment department, comments: "A hell of a lot of our youngsters are heavily motivated by money. They're not going to get up at 6am to be bussed on site and come home filthy and knackered at 8pm for £75 a week – they know they could get more than that working in McDonald's. The candidates we get now have an eye to the future. It's money-driven. They want to work for themselves. All the stories about plumbers earning £40,000 a year – that's what the youngsters see, they see the money."

Government policy is also working in the industry's favour. Philip Westwood, head of the University of Brighton's environment department, attributes the increase in applications over the past couple of years to the government's plan to charge top-up fees. "Over the past couple of years, construction has become a more popular course – but I can't see that growth continuing massively," he says. "I suspect the current debate over student fees has awakened people to the idea that if they're going to do a degree, they should do it now. We're seeing more mature applicants, some who got their A levels a couple of years ago, some who would otherwise be doing a gap year."

Companies should not jump to the conclusion that students will beat a path to their doors no matter how they are treated. For one thing, much of the interest is coming from substandard students, who Newman says do not turn up on time or behave in an appropriate way. It is unlikely to attract more high-flyers who are in a position to choose between a number of careers, and make money in any of them. Many lecturers Building spoke to said there was much work to be done to make the industry appealing to those with good grades. "Construction has always been seen as the occupation for the low achievers," says Newman.

To improve the calibre of students, there needs to be more academic rigour, argues Professor Raftery. "Construction doesn't attract people with very high academic scores. We did turn a corner two years ago – that was the lowest ebb – but we're still not getting enough applicants to be able to pick and choose the best."

Can we fix it?
Many promising solutions to the industry's problems have been canvassed, but few have been implemented. Universities and the government are keen to win over women, ethnic minorities and mature students. Most courses have not seen much of an increase in women entering the industry in recent years, but the few girls on construction courses report positive experiences, and are keen for the industry to promote itself to girls, especially within schools. This isn't something that universities or the Construction Industry Training Board can undertake on their own, and they want individual companies to become more active in going into schools and talking to sixth-formers.

I found that nobody would take me on. Companies aren’t interested in you until you’re qualified

Then there is the industry's ambivalent attitude to foreign students. They are a rapidly growing minority on many courses, but they often have no choice but to take their qualifications back to their home countries. Manav Rowjee, a 19-year-old Mauritian student at the University of Greenwich, says: "There's a huge demand for qualified people in my country. These courses aren't available over there, and an English qualification is much more respected." Why can't British firms tap into this flow of foreign students, all well acquainted with British standards and methods?

Increasing numbers of mature students are also being attracted to start British construction courses, but are finding it hard to finish them. Some have worked in the industry for quite a while and now want the back-up of a formal qualification. Others are retraining from a host of other occupations, mostly attracted by the stable jobs and plentiful work prospects on offer. For these people, the industry's best move would be to offer more financial support – it costs a lot of money to study as a mature candidate, and many people find it hard to juggle childcare with study and balancing the family budget. Some kind of sponsorship scheme or hardship fund would be greatly welcomed.

Then there is the missing link between site and classroom: work placements. The industry seems to offer none at all, or to offer ones designed to put the student off construction for life. The CITB is alive to the problem and, as reported in Building on 24 October, is looking for a way to get the main players on a site to combine to set up a virtual training companies, which would then organise properly planned and supervised work placements.

Melodie Hancock

Age 34 From Sussex
Studying Urban conservation and environmental management
At University of Brighton

I’ve always been fascinated by converted buildings and property development and I wanted to learn the technical side as well as the artistic. I looked into studying architecture, but this course is more grounded and technical. Energy conservation and sustainability is in the public eye now and it needs to be driven forward by the industry. It’s becoming a more mainstream consideration, but it still needs to be taken into account right through from the start of the design process. It needs a change in mindset. The industry also has to realise that designing these buildings means we have to think about key workers and encourage people to become skilled.

I want to work with developers who care about environmental effects. Eventually I’d like to run my own property development company. A lot of people imagine developers as mass-build fat cats. They also see builders as being cowboys. But there’s a lot in between those extremes.

Brighton is the only place in the country doing my course. There are very few of us studying it, although numbers are beginning to increase. There’s a high employment rate for alumni – that was important for me. I wanted to be sure I was going to get a good job at the end of it.

There was a bit of tension between boys and girls at first when the course started – the guys were wondering what we were doing here. But when they saw we were doing just as well as them, we got more respect. Now it’s fine.

Nolan Byrne

Age 17 From Berkshire
Studying National diploma in construction
At Reading College

Construction was my first choice – I’ve always wanted to do it. My dad and brother are both in construction and so it’s something that I’ve grown up around.

I found out about this course purely by accident; people need to know more about how to get into courses like this. There’s a lot of room for more people on the courses we’re doing – not enough people are going into construction. It has an image problem, it sounds boring and all people see is being outside in the cold and the wet.

I’m going to university when I finish my HND, because I want to be properly qualified. I want to get experience working for someone else and then my brother and I want to specialise, probably in concrete laying, and set up out own company. There’s a lot of room to make loads of money.

I tried to get a summer job to see what it was like as a trainee engineer, but I found that nobody would take me on. Companies aren’t interested in you until you’re qualified and then they’re fighting to take you. The industry needs to make it more of a welcoming business. I had to go through absolute murder to get practical experience.

Laura Troth

Age 20 From South London
Studying Building surveying
At University of Greenwich

I went into construction because I’m interested in the whole process of creating buildings, from start to finish. And I think there should definitely be more women, so I’m setting an example! For so many years it has been seen as a man’s trade – I’m from a family of builders and quantity surveyors but when I first said I wanted to go into the industry they laughed at me. That just made me more determined. I didn’t hear anything about construction in school. It needs to be promoted more, to tell us more about what is available.

My course is all men, which is hard. Working on site can be quite off-putting for girls; men’s attitudes really need to change. The idea that girls don’t want to get their hands dirty is a stereotype – girls aren’t really that bothered. If a man can be a hairdresser and not get laughed at, why can’t a woman be a builder?