Bilal, speaking the National Construction Recruitment Exhibition last week in Wembley, north-west London, criticised his course for failing to give him the practical skills necessary to make the leap from college to industry. "They didn't really give me enough technical training, and in the end I had to do another AutoCAD course at City & Guild," he says. "There is this misconception that the industry is crying out for qualified graduates, but the big companies I've approached, like Amec, Richard Rogers Partnership and Foster and Partners, are looking for people with six years' experience."
The Kent Institute maintains that it has close links to companies and industry professionals. However, it does concede that "changes in industries can have direct impact on employment opportunities".
Bilal's tale is echoed by other graduates at the fair. Klara Liljestrand, 26, from Sweden, graduated in February from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm with a degree in mechanical engineering. Her enthusiasm for a construction career is undimmed, but like Bilal, she maintains that academic theory needs to be better aligned with industrial reality. Her ambition is to move into consultancy, but she feels ill-prepared for it. "My course didn't really give me a multidisciplinary training – many construction courses miss out on that element," she says. "The universities and the industry are to blame – there needs to be more interaction between the two at an earlier stage. I would like to see more courses offering work experience."
The problems highlighted by the students have already been identified by the industry. Building revealed in January that a report, entitled Rethinking Construction Education, predicted that there will be no construction undergraduates left by 2012. This triggered the creation of a body called Accelerating Change in Built Environment Education, with the task of building better bridges between industry and academe.
ACBEE, a joint industry–government initiative, has yet to be officially launched, but has pencilled in a workshop next month. This will bring together industry figures such as Oliver Whitehead, chief executive of contractor Alfred McAlpine, and Stef Stefanou, chairman of concrete specialist John Doyle, with professors from Imperial College, Cambridge, Kingston and Loughborough universities.
"We need to get the industry and the institutions to talk to each other clearly," says John Hobson, former head of construction at the DTI, who is driving the ACBEE initiative. "The industry isn't getting what it needs from the universities and vice versa; this must change."
Hobson believes that the onus is on the industry to tell colleges what to teach. "Many of the courses are outdated," he says. "If the professions can improve at communicating what modern skills they are looking for, the universities can gain a better understanding of how to develop contemporary courses, all of which will lead to the industry attracting better recruits."
It may not be a great deal of comfort to Bilal or Klara, but ABCEE does seem to be addressing many of the criticisms they make. One of its initiatives is the establishment of demonstration projects in which industry leaders collaborate with institutions to develop model course syllabuses. "Many graduates come into the industry and are still not ready to take on a job," says Eddie Coulter, a member of the ABCEE steering group. "Some haven't had the correct specific teaching and others aren't up to scratch on the multidisciplinary skills required."
Coulter believes that if the industry sponsors courses, provides opportunities for graduates to visit current projects and clearly defines what kind of teaching is necessary, the result would be better qualified graduates who could get to work immediately. He points to schemes like that at Salford University, where the School of Construction and Property Management is working with a consortium of construction and consultancy firms including Mace, Galliford Try and EC Harris to develop a fast-track course for high-flyers.
ABCEE has been working closely with the strategic forum, whose chairman Peter Rogers has strong ideas on how educational institutions can benefit from changing the way construction courses are run. He wants all courses to begin with an overview of the built environment and students from different disciplines to collaborate on projects. "We educate in very narrow silos – engineers, architects, surveyors and so on," Rogers told Building last year. "We've got to find a way of bringing people together." Hobson agrees: "The silo mentality is not helpful to the industry, which needs team players with broad view of construction, as well as a specialisation."
Despite all this effort and the resulting ideas, the industry has an uphill task to persuade Bilal that he has not made a mistake in pursuing a construction career. His response underlines the deep-rooted nature of the problem. "I'm not sure this ABCEE initiative will solve the underlying problems," he says. "It sounds like a gimmick to get applicant levels up."