What makes a young person pursue a career in construction?
In the first in a series of articles, UK Construction Online examines this question and looks at how young people can be encouraged to become the construction workers of the future.
Whether it is the struggle to build enough houses to meet the government target of one million new homes by 2020 or completing large-scale infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail, the skills shortage seems to dominate the construction industry.
The mismatch between the skills available in the UK labour force and those required to meet the ambitions of the government and private companies within the construction sector remains a huge problem and raises the key question – what can be done about it?
UK Construction Online recently covered a story on a record breaking Meccano bridge that was constructed by Queen’s University civil Engineering students across Clarendon Dock in Belfast.
Civil Engineering contractor McLaughlin & Harvey Ltd provided technical advisory services on the project, which provided an opportunity for students to gain on-site experience and to test their skills away from a classroom environment.
Local primary school children also got to learn more about the opportunities in construction and STEM careers in an effort to encourage them to consider taking up a career in these sectors.
Although not a solution in the short-term, the need to encourage children and young people to consider taking up a career in construction is obvious if the long term future of the UK Construction industry is to be safeguarded.
We spoke to John McCarey, Chief Engineer at McLaughlin & Harvey, who worked with the students throughout the project, to discuss the most effective ways of educating the next generation of workers and also encouraging children to consider pursuing careers in construction.
What was your involvement in terms of training for the Meccano bridge project?
I was engaged with the students earlier on in the year to go through how we were going to lift and install the bridge. We actually did a trial erection in our warehouse back in July, just as they were completing their final exams.
We went through all the different aspects of how the load was being distributed throughout the bridge to give ourselves a good appreciation of the sensitivity of the structure because it is quite a light structure.
We developed risk assessments, method statements, and a walkthrough with them on the various aspects of health and safety that perhaps don’t get covered in a classroom lecture theatre environment. This demonstrated to the students the practicalities that need to be considered and worked around when you bring something from a piece of paper through to build size and then through to the actual onsite erection of the structure itself.
It must be extremely satisfying being able to pass on your knowledge?
Absolutely. I actually graduated from the Queens University in 2005 so I was in those students’ shoes ten years ago.
You gain so much practical knowledge from being out onsite and its great to be able to share some of that with students. That’s the one thing students sometimes don’t get enough of in an academic course.
The industry really needs to provide more support and assist the universities because ultimately the construction sector want better qualified staff and we all have to engage.
The Meccano bridge is a fantastic way of capturing people’s imagination in terms of engineering. How important are these kind of projects to inspire people and help students along the way?
It’s a really good insight into civil engineering. We face challenges everyday and we continually overcome them. Civil engineering is probably one of the unsung sectors because a lot of the stuff we do is buried beneath the ground and is out of sight. It only comes to people’s attention when something actually goes wrong, whereas a bridge is above the ground and is a showpiece of what we can really achieve.
From bringing a simple toy like Meccano into such a large-scale structure that can be physically used as a bridge shows what you can dream about and then how you can create it, install it and use it, which is a great aspect as well.
The school children participated in the project as part of the university’s outreach programme. What was their role?
The school children were involved in the actual build process screwing the nuts and bolts, putting the Meccano pieces together.
What inspired you to take up engineering?
Everyday is a different challenge. You go into work and know there are always challenges ahead in every project and sometimes the smaller challenges you get more pride out of overcoming them. The bigger challenges – everybody knows they need attention and there’s lots of resources thrown into them.
With engineering you get to the freedom to overcome small challenges that actually feed in to a global part of a project. It’s about being part of a team as well your own individual achievement on solving problems.
Essentially, it is all problem solving when it comes down to it. Whether it be designing something, making sure it’s structurally sound and how you get it installed and then operational.
In terms of your childhood, did you play with Meccano or Lego, or anything along those lines that you could say influenced your career choice?
I was a big Lego child. I had some Meccano bits and pieces over years but Lego was definitely an influence. I suppose I am still a big kid, I still tend to play with Lego every now and again!
What kind of impact can toys like Meccano, Lego, and Minecraft have on children. Do you think they have a positive influence and can inspire youngsters to consider a career in construction?
I definitely do. Anything that helps people bring out their creative side and provide a technical challenge, whether it be following a simple plan, devising your own plans, or simply building from your own imagination. The great thing about those toys is you get to see the fruit of your labour and dreams.
It’s great because that’s essentially what happened with the bridge; we really scaled up something form somebody’s imagination into real life project and that’s what happened everyday with civil engineering.
Is Minecraft almost an entry level BIM for children?
You know it definitely is. Because essentially that’s what BIM is, you start off with your first blocks and you build up to different layers as you put in your different components into the structure whatever it may be, whether its blocks on the screen or blocks on the ground followed by fixtures and fittings.
It’s getting people in that mind set of where you start – from your initial concept and where you want to end up and all the bits and pieces you have to fit in together. It’s also about the challenges that come when things don’t fit together and how you have to work around things that are non-standard that you to then design, implement, and interpret what you need and invent to make it fit and become operational. It’s an excellent stepping stone.
Network rail recently released a study suggesting that by the age of 11, girls could be put off a career in engineering. Do you think there is a cut off point in terms of age to be attracted to a career in STEM industries?
I’m sure there is a certain point in time if they are not accustomed to playing with a certain toy, it would almost become socially unacceptable to then start picking it up at a later age. I think there should more availability for those toys for both sexes and be more targeted at female and particular ages.
The industry needs a good mix people as well.
Do you think more needs to be done to encourage women to take up careers in the industry?
There definitely needs to be a bigger drive. The sector itself is struggling at the moment with the number of people entering it and if you can entice more females into the industry then all the better.
I suppose it could be a number of years before we see the fruits of the labour as we set out to try and get the individuals to take up.
Lego are now starting to target girls more with their toys and different things like that, even the Meccano bridge – these things will inspire a certain age group so it maybe a number of years before we see the benefit. The younger generation is where it really needs to be targeted.
Is enough being done by the government to deal with this?
This is definitely one of my own gripes at the moment with the industry in that we probably don’t do enough. There are so many other different types of jobs and skill requirements within the construction sector, that sometimes it is targeted more towards engineering. People who just want to work on the ground who are maybe unskilled right through to skilled labourers whether it be piling hands, carpenters, concrete workers, steel erectors, there are so many opportunities for other skills and the best way to learn those skills is through apprenticeships.
The construction industry really needs to jump in and try and make a big recruitment drive and get people into that and without the industry offering that training – industry itself needs to push it because no one else is going to train up their future employees for them.
The Royal Academy of Engineering said in June that the UK needs more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years. Given what we’ve discussed, this doesn’t seem likely. It will take time.
No doubt it will take time. We are definitely seeing a skills shortage at the moment. We take on quite a lot placement students each year; we also try to take them back on the following year for their summer holidays.
We had a student who was instrumental in the Meccano bridge project from its conception right through to build stages. He was one of the team tasked with the project back in January. He worked with us as a placement student back in 2014 and came back and worked with us this summer. He got a real feel for the environment we’re in and we were able to provide him a bit of time onsite, in the office and he was back in with in this summer.
He was good for McLaughlin & Harvey in assisting us internally with the bridge and we were then able to design and look at all the different requirements we needed for the structure itself.
We feel that this process works well; we engage with the student early on in their career, bring them in and it’s also a good way of picking up the better students as well by engaging them through those means.
Do you think there’s an opportunity to get younger children involved within the industry?
We do a lot of projects on the Constructionline scheme and Considerate Constructors. Ivor Goodbody is a cartoon-style character that will visit schools and give out construction toys. He will visit primary schools and give them an overview of a project we are completing in their neighbourhood. Sometimes, where possible, we will bring the children on a site visit. Obviously some sites are more suited for children than others.
You need to plant a seed in those people’s heads. At that young age, probably under the age of 10, people really get a vision of what they want to achieve later in life.
Do children’s TV programmes have a part to play in this?
I think they do. Bob the Builder is the most recent one I remember. Of course, the great thing about any type of construction is that you really get to see the fruits of your labour at the end of the day. Sometimes when you’re in an office environment, you’re working on a project for months on end before you actually see any reward, whereas in a construction environment, at the end of every day you can step back and see the changes as it evolves.