March 8, 2021

Saving the planet – is this how we get young people excited about construction?

At a time when the skills shortage continues to loom large, Ryan Johnson, Campus Director for STEM and Construction at Stoke on Trent College, believes that the key to enticing young people into the industry could be their interest in environmental matters.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been asking people around Stoke-on-Trent if they’ve heard of the District Heat Network. Their answer is often the same – “No, I’ve never heard of it”. While they’ve seen the roads being dug up and pipes being laid, they aren’t always aware that this major new infrastructure and investment will reduce their energy prices and create vast job opportunities for the next generation. 

As we speak, some 18km of pipe is being laid under the city to provide geothermal energy, forming the basis for further expansion in the decades to come. The £50m project is one of the key components in an overall investment of £500m in a smart energy system in Stoke-on-Trent over the next six to seven years. 

Last year the government published its long-awaited construction sector deal and reinforced its commitment to growing this industry, identifying it as a key priority. The value of construction new work continues to rise in Great Britain, reaching its highest level on record in 2017 at £109m, according to the ONS.  

But while the work is increasing, the skills are declining. So how do we fill this gap and get young people excited about construction? 

The future of construction 

As government policy and human behaviour changes, the construction industry adapts. Major new projects bring exciting opportunities for this sector – for example as the UK focuses on renewable energy, projects like the District Heat Networks will create thousands of jobs and an opportunity for young people to skill up in new areas of construction. At Stoke-on-Trent College we react to these changes by developing courses that help young people to learn the skills they need for the future – for example our apprenticeships, our construction trades programmes and Bell Decorating Academy, and our A-Level equivalent BTEC course in Construction and the Built Environment. We’re also developing a District Heat Skills Academy, funded by the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). This will give people the skills needed to design, supply and maintain the new geothermal energy networks because we know this will create a vast number of jobs.

Employers are key to what we do at the college, and our employer forums play an important role in the design and shaping of our curriculum offer. Our Constructing Staffordshire Excellence (CSE) Employer Forum was set up by, and on behalf of, all business involved in the construction industry across Staffordshire to promote best practice and share innovation. 

The forum influences local government and promotes continuous improvement, learning and employment opportunities within the local construction industry. It gives us a valuable insight into what the sector needs and where the skills gaps are going to be so that we can plan our curriculum to meet both learner and employer needs. It is a valuable resource for identifying and providing work placements and apprenticeships – vital for both learners and employers.

Recruitment strategies 

Attracting people to courses like this can be tough. In a world of tech start-ups and entrepreneurs, trades can be perceived as old fashioned. Yet with the advent of digital skills in construction, such as Buildings Information Modelling (BIM), and the fact that young people are becoming increasingly eco-conscious and committed to saving the planet, what better way to do this than to build the infrastructure that allows the UK to run on 100% renewable energy? 

So, it’s important that we inspire them to look at construction in a different way – it’s building a better, greener, more sustainable future for the world and they can be a part of that. 

As well as the usual recruitment strategies of visiting schools and social media campaigns, we’ve been looking at new ways to show young people how exciting the construction industry is. For example, we’ve held taster sessions at the college which are interactive and engaging – things like giving pupils the opportunity to drive a digger makes a lasting impression. These kinds of things are what I remember from my days at school. And it’s important to plant the seed early – educating and inspiring children from primary school age.  

Incentives for young people 

Saving the planet is an exciting incentive but what else does a construction course give students? All of the learners who completed our Construction and the Built Environment BTEC this year are now going on to university to study high level courses such as construction management, surveying, civil engineering, higher education programmes such as HNC/D, foundation degrees and more. The course has given them skills which are relevant and transferable, and they have gained valuable work experience too. 

If this takes them into a career in construction, which I hope that it will, they’ll benefit from average weekly earnings of £607 a week, second only to the finance and business services sector and could find themselves earning up to £100k a year as a construction manager. 

It’s an exciting prospect – the chance to have a rewarding, well paid, fulfilling career in a sector with an abundance of jobs and the knowledge that you are part of a movement to save the planet. Now it’s time to get the message out there to the people who need to hear it the most – the future talent of the construction sector. 

Ryan Johnson is Campus Director for STEM and Construction at Stoke on Trent College. The college has places available on its Construction and the Built Environment course in 2019/20.

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