How do you attract the pupils of a 97% Asian school in Birmingham into construction? In the second of our recruitment specials, industry figures face the challenge of recruiting ethnic minorities.

“The industry needs people like you to make things work,” Suzannah Thursfield, director of health and safety at the Construction Confederation, told an audience of 120 Asian 14-year-olds at Small Heath School in Birmingham last week.

She was taking part in a two-day recruitment drive at the school, organised jointly by the confederation and the Construction Industry Training Board. Although the CITB makes hundreds of such visits every year, the confederation had never made one. The motive behind it was Construction Confederation chair Jennie Price’s drive to reverse the decline in recruitment by trying to attract more women and ethnic minorities into the industry.

Small Heath’s vital statistics make it an ideal target: the school is so oversubscribed that it only accepts pupils living within a five-mile radius; it is in one of the most deprived areas in Birmingham, with 19% unemployment; and its 1200 pupils are 97% Asian and an even mix of boys and girls.

The school’s demography has made it a popular testing ground for employers keen to increase the diversity of their workforce. The week before the Construction Confederation’s visit, the navy had whisked a party off to Torpoint to visit HMS Raleigh, and before that, the army had taken pupils off to a training camp.

All that wooing seemed to have left the teenagers with a “so what’s so great about you” attitude, but in any case, the confederation had its work cut out: hardly any students knew anyone who worked in the industry and most of them wanted to be teachers, nurses, doctors or lawyers.

Day one: The race for the top

I’d be an architect on the moon. I read about space stations and hotels on the moon in the papers

Kiran Aftab, 14

The confederation’s strategy was to offer a programme of games, workshops and site and office visits. The aim, in the words of Small Heath’s careers adviser Richard Riley, was “to dispel the myth that construction is all about scruffy white blokes laying bricks”.

Thursfield did a good job of doing just that as she kicked off events. “I thought it was just men in construction, but obviously I’m not one,” she pointed out. “It’s the largest UK industry, with £1bn of construction work completed each week. It employs 1.4 million workers – one in four of the working population – including 7000 graduates a year. If you want to be a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant, there are careers in construction for you – as an occupational health adviser, a construction lawyer or a quantity surveyor.”

She then handed over to Julian Humphreys, regional manager of CITB Midlands, who invited the students to split into three groups of 40. They had to rotate between workshops on designing and building a Lego tower and designing and marketing a housing estate, a research exercise on careers in construction and a construction quiz on the Internet.

In the Lego workshop, students had to create the tallest tower in the shortest time to win the most money. “It’s about communication, team-building issues. Construction comes as an added bonus,” said Humphreys.

The teenagers came up with a variety of early solutions to the problem, but as the competition got under way and groups took turns against the clock, the others watched, rapt, to see which towers would collapse. Miraculously, the designs grew more and more similar to the most successful one.

“It was brilliant. We should do it more often,” said Fatima Bibi, 14, whose group won after a word of advice from visiting Movement for Innovation chairman and former Christiani & Nielsen managing director Alan Crane.

I feel construction has high society opportunities for interesting careers in many professional disciplines … Is that what you want me to say?

Moneeb Hafeez

Next was the construction quiz. Unfortunately, The school’s Internet server had crashed, so the students had to make do with an encyclopedia on CD-ROM to find answers to questions such as “When was the first brick-arch bridge built?”

A research exercise on careers in construction, organised by Irene Andrews of the CITB, came next. The students listened first to the real-life career histories of Thursfield and Julian Stanton, the EC Harris QS on the £90m Star City leisure development in nearby Nechells. Students then had to rifle through CITB material such as the Construction Careers Handbook 2000 and Building’s teen supplement, Sitelife 2000, for more details on the career of a quantity surveyor, a project manager or a town planner, before standing up and selling it to their classmates.

The last event was the housing estate design workshop, in which teams had to role-play a project manager, an architect, a QS, a site engineer and a marketing manager. They took to it easily. Many had produced plans of houses and schools in design technology classes and two girls had even worked as volunteers on a landscaping project for the BBC’s Charlie’s Garden Army.

The response to the first day’s events was fairly positive, although the participants seemed more interested in getting high scores than in learning about construction. The reason for this was that that the top 30 would miss lessons on Tuesday to visit Star City and the offices of WS Atkins Midlands.

Crane announced the winners – and was not surprised that Fatima’s group had won the tower-building competition. After all, they had consulted him – “and I was in charge of building the tallest tower in Britain (Canary Wharf) and the tallest in the world (the Petronas Towers in Malaysia),” he said, referring to his time as Bovis’ director of international operations.

Crane extolled the variety and responsibility that a career in construction offers. “I started off as a painter of steel structures and became a director of one of the UK’s largest construction firms,” he said. “With every job you do, it’s something new; a new place, with new people.”

I want to work in catering. I’m good at cooking. Can I do that with the CITB?

Fatima Bibi

Day two: The real thing

A straw poll of the 30 students waiting to visit Star City showed that they were enjoying the events – but hardly bowled over by them. The question “Are you any more likely to work in construction after today?” was more likely to be met with a no than a yes.

Would Star City make the difference? In a prefabricated marketing suite next to the site, students watched a digital slideshow of the story behind the gargantuan Las Vegas-style leisure complex, planned and built over five years by a Carillion-Richardsons joint venture.

Carillion development director Mark Harris’ commentary sounded like a modified client presentation, and the students found it rather dry and inaccessible. They perked up, however, when Carillion development manager Neil Martin escorted them on a sneak preview of the complex, designed in Disneyesque style by US architect Jerde Partnership.

In an attempt to impress the girls, Martin confided: “George Clooney is coming to open the cinema in three weeks’ time, at the premiere of The Perfect Storm.” But the girls remained unmoved. “I like Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger,” said Fatima, demure in headscarf and shalwar kameez trouser suit. They were more interested in the giant granite balls that revolve hydraulically on podiums in the foyer of the complex, and in the £1.5m specialist lighting scheme by the Lighting Design Partnership.

Did the site visit interest them any further in construction? There were glimmers of interest. “If Jerde is a person, he must be very rich,” ventured Nasir Uddin, 14. “Do you get holidays?” Uddin asked Harris. “Yes, but I find it hard to take them,” he replied. “People want answers all the time –‘What do I do with this?’ ‘Where do I put that?’ I’ve ended up working until 8pm and on weekends sometimes.”

The London Eye is boring; it goes too slow. I want to write for the Financial Times. I want to be a stockbroker

Moneeb Hafeez

At the last port of call, WS Atkins’ offices, groups of five students listened to an architect, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer and a highways engineer talk about their jobs.

“Have you been to Star City?” asked Keith Billington, head of the architecture division at WS Atkins Midlands. The students nod. “So you’ve seen the horrors of the building site. This is the cushy end, where you sit in comfy chairs and let your imagination run riot. “I was in prison last week,” Billington continued, provocatively.

“Why, what did you do?“ gasped Kiran Aftab, possibly wondering if he had been sent down for having a disorderly imagination. “I was in a young offenders’ institution we designed in the city of Durham.” Kiran then wanted to know: “Can’t you make them more colourful so they feel more at home?” This sparked off a lively discussion about colour psychology in architecture.

Mechanical engineer Brian Smart demonstrated AutoCAD. “I think hand drawings are better,” said Kiran. “Yes, but I could e-mail my CAD drawing to someone in Scotland and he could modify it and sent it back this afternoon,” Smart replied.

Transport engineer Andy Hitch did a quickfire presentation on the work Atkins does maintaining Spaghetti Junction and the rest of the dense road network around Birmingham.

Before the students left, Paul Winterbottom, head of human resources, wondered out loud, “What’s the most notable thing you’ve seen?” The reply from one of the students was: “A Z3 BMW. The architect drew it on AutoCAD.” The nonchalance of teenagers makes it hard to fathom what they thought of construction by the end of the two days.

“Statistically, 10 of you should finish up working in construction in the future,” Crane had said to the 120 students on Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, the students’ conversations with Atkins showed they had grasped roughly what an architect, QS, project manager, and a structural and M&E engineer did. This, and the applause it got before it left, was as much as the conederation could hope for.

Overcoming race and gender barriers

Ethnic minorities make up only 1.6% of the construction workforce, yet they account for 6.4% of the population as a whole, according to CITB figures. In the light of the recruitment crisis in the industry, the government and all the major industry bodies have in the past year launched initiatives to recruit more ethnic minorities. Last year, the government funded the start-up of a taskforce called Changing the Face of Construction, a joint venture between the CITB, the Movement for Innovation and the Construction Industry Board, to monitor and promote the recruitment of women and people from ethnic minorities. A Housing Forum taskforce dedicated to Recruitment, Retention and Respect will study and disseminate its findings on the barriers that prevent ethnic minorities from entering the industry. Charmaine Young, deputy chair of the taskforce and director of regeneration at housebuilder St George, is involved in an initiative with the North London Muslim Housing Association, intended to train Muslim women to do domestic repairs. The initiative is driven by need, as Muslim women are not allowed to let a man into the house unless their husband is present, says Young.