Construction industry must build future workforce - Emma Dickson

The stereotype of mucky sites is still shaping perceptions of construction, says Dickson. Picture: Andy Forman
The stereotype of mucky sites is still shaping perceptions of construction, says Dickson. Picture: Andy Forman
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My desire to work in construction started at an early age. At 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 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. 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 IT, or learning a traditional trade, a broad range of skills is required.

In addition to my day job, I chair the Construction Scotland Industry Leadership Group’s Skills Working Group and I 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.

A wide career spectrum

So why is this old stereotype of “rough and ready” and “mucky sites” still shaping perceptions of construction? Perhaps because, as an industry, we too are disparate in our messaging. Maybe we need to be better at coordinating what we are saying and educate the educators 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, from the school leaver to the university graduate. This is just one potential solution to addressing one of the key challenges facing the sector. Everyone acknowledges the skills gap in construction and that there is an ageing workforce. The sheer number of vacancies expected over the next few years, as much of our workforce retires, clearly demonstrates why attracting more potential employees to our industry is so crucial.

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This is why another 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.

Attracting employees is just half the challenge

Technology and building sustainably are just some of the areas impacting 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 to make it an appealing career.

But attracting employees is just half of the challenge. Retention of skilled talent is 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 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 is key to sustaining and growing the significant contribution that the construction industry makes to the economy. Let’s pull together, modernise our industry with skills training and an inclusive environment, and communicate coherently the exciting array of careers on offer. Maybe more young people will get to enjoy the opportunity I was afforded in 1989.

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