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Closing the digital skills gap

Digital processes have fast become a staple part of any construction project, yet the skills needed to implement them correctly remain worryingly low across the industry. Gavin Dunstan, BIM director at M&E specialist SES Engineering Services, discusses how firms can ensure a digital culture is built into the heart of construction and that we have a strong supply of digital engineers for the future.

The skills gap currently affecting the UK construction industry is well-documented. But while attention is often dominated by the dwindling supply of manual labour, the lack of digital skills in our sector should be an equally pressing concern.

Digital engineering has become one of the most transformative areas of construction today. Processes such as BIM are already a vital part of almost all large projects and this is only set to increase. It is certainly not inconceivable to assume that in a decade’s time, all construction works – regardless of size – will feature some form of digital processing.

Despite this obvious rise up the engineering agenda, the industry has been slow to upskill to meet this demand. The skills needed to deliver this digital revolution properly are currently few and far between. Those who can transform the industry’s culture may have the skills and progressive attitude for change, but they lack the practical or leadership experience. Meanwhile, many senior figures who do have this experience can appear apathetic, sceptical or, at worst, cynical about digital innovation.

Starting from scratch

The solution is to start from the ground up. Newcomers to the industry, regardless of what role they play, need to be instructed on the essential role of digital processes in construction, ensuring they are considering its application in everything they do.
While this will go a considerable way to encouraging a more general digital culture, we also need specialists. A new generation of BIM experts need to be nurtured and trained, in the same way that we would for any other construction profession. Apprenticeships here are key, providing a vital route for young people to begin bespoke careers, becoming specialists in digital skills from the start.

At SES, we have built on our current training programme, which has over the last five years already seen more than 80 apprentices employed through the business, to develop a bespoke BIM apprenticeship that has already received its first trainees.

It’s never too late

31-year-old Joseph Maggs originally joined SES at the start of September 2018, having previously worked in construction-adjacent roles, including recruitment and sales for a builders’ merchant.

After being referred to SES by a colleague, he was offered a three-year apprenticeship on the firm’s BIM team, splitting his time between studying for a Level 3 BTEC in Construction and the Built Environment at Barnsley College and learning practical skills in the office. Following his apprenticeship, Joseph will then move on to study for a Higher National Diploma (HND).

Joseph said: “I always enjoyed the technical side of construction, but I wanted the opportunity to be more creative, which I wasn’t able to be in my previous sales roles. However, I believed it was too late for me to work directly within the sector, with apprenticeships only available to younger people, fresh out of education.

“I truly believe that BIM is the future of large developments and I’m so glad I have the opportunity to develop skills in this area. I’m exposed to so many different types of projects by working for SES and by the end of my training, I’ll be able to make the most informed decision on which area I’d like to specialise in.”

Building on CAD

Samuel Eastwood, 18, was pointed towards SES’ BIM apprenticeship by his sixth form, after he showed a strong interest in engineering and graphics throughout school. After taking on some work experience with SES in 2017 where he was introduced to the REVIT system, he relished the challenge and knew BIM and digital engineering was the career path for him.

Sam said: “I was first introduced to CAD in school and always thought it was something I wanted to incorporate into my future career, I just wasn’t aware of the breadth of its use. After completing a work experience placement with the SES team, I saw how, along with other design systems, it can be used to make a huge impact in the UK’s construction sector.

“Every day is a new challenge and working with so many supportive teams and project leads is a great way to build my skills. While I had used CAD in college, there’s nothing that can compare to on-the-job experience. I know that I’m receiving the best training possible for me at SES to develop a strong career in digital engineering.”

The future is BIM

There isn’t a question mark over the future of BIM in construction. It is a shift in approach that is already well underway and, unless we embrace it properly now as an industry, we risk being left far behind.

By training up more people as data and digital specialists from the outset, giving them a mix of classroom education and on-the-job experience, we can ensure that we are helping close the skills gap across all specialisms, future-proofing our industry for years to come.

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