Construction – it’s about more than bricks and mortar

Emma Dickson

By Emma Dickson, a member of the Construction Scotland Industry Leadership Group and chair of the Skills Working Group.

MY desire to work in the construction industry started at an early age. In school, I had an aptitude for maths and enjoyed science, and it was because of this, a teacher suggested I attend a Women in Engineering taster course. At the age of 16, I spent a week in Aberdeen getting to know the different fields of engineering and at the end of it, I knew I wanted to work in construction.  I became a civil engineer.

I’d like to think that every young person in school has the opportunity to explore their future options and that they have a good understanding of what is available to them.

When it comes to careers, there is not much that the construction industry doesn’t offer. Whether people are contemplating a professional career as an architect, quantity surveyor or accountant, a role in information technology, or learning a traditional trade, a broad range of skills is required within the industry.

In addition to my day job, I chair the Construction Scotland Industry Leadership Group’s Skills Working Group and see first-hand how the industry is being promoted as a career option. Sadly, I have found myself at various events only to find that the young people the schools chose to send along were very focused on what the teachers perceive to be low-skill, low paid trades. There is a lack of understanding of the range of trade and professional roles on offer, and also of trade skill pay levels.

So why is this old stereotype of ‘rough and ready’ and ‘mucky sites’ still shaping perceptions of jobs in construction?

Perhaps it is because, as an industry, we too are disparate in our messaging. There’s certainly lots of good work being done by various agencies and organisations to promote careers in construction, but maybe we need to be better at coordinating what we are saying and educate the educators and parents about the diverse range of opportunities available.

Construction Scotland’s Inspiring Construction programme has been working to do just that by promoting the wide career spectrum across the sector, from the school leaver to the university graduate.

But this is just one potential solution to addressing one of the key challenges facing the sector.

Everyone acknowledges the skills gap in construction, and the fact that there is an ageing workforce. The sheer number of vacancies expected over the next few years, as so many of our workforce retire, clearly demonstrates why attracting more potential employees to our industry is so crucial.

This is why another area of focus for the Skills Working Group is promoting the different routes into construction at every level, from apprenticeships to attracting people from other sectors who have transferable skills. As an industry, we need to be looking at ways to fund vocational training to support people to make the transition.

Technology and building sustainably are just some of the areas impacting on how we work to deliver projects efficiently, so we must also look to upskilling our workforce to encourage them to embrace digitalisation and encourage innovation. Training, professional development and career progression pathways need to be an integral part of the business if we are to truly modernise the construction industry and make it an appealing career option.

But attracting employees is just one half of the challenge. Retention of skilled talent is as equally important. We need to create modern working environments that not only deliver results, but meet the needs of those working in the industry to ensure our recruitment efforts aren’t wasted. Employees are seeking better work life balance and they are more aware than ever of the importance of good mental health and wellbeing. Good leadership and management training can drive the culture change required to create an industry that is diverse and inclusive.

Attracting and retaining talented individuals will be key to sustaining and growing the significant contribution that the construction industry makes to the economy.  So let’s pull together, modernise our industry with the right skills training and inclusive environment, and get around the table and communicate coherently and consistently about the exciting array of careers on offer, no matter what their skillset or interests are, and just maybe more young people will get to enjoy the opportunity I was afforded back in the summer of 1989.