Industry must continue to engage with schools despite the pandemic (plus five ways to do it)

The construction industry needs to diversify and engage with young people if it is to avoid a future recruitment crisis. However, coronavirus has made it harder to offer work placements and give careers guidance. AECOM’s Bryony Martin explains why it is more important than ever to continue engaging with schools to attract the best talent, especially those in disadvantaged areas.

Before coronavirus struck, predictions warned of an increasing skills gap in the face of steady construction sector growth. The UK’s departure from the EU, combined with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, make the future even harder to predict. However, the need to attract fresh talent to construction remains – as does the need to be more inclusive and employ people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

As of January, both public bodies and central government organisations must now explicitly evaluate whether they can secure added economic, social or environmental benefits, as well as value for money, during procurement to maximise the impact of public expenditure. This is a step forward from ‘considering’ social value during procurement previously required under the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. In short, as key stakeholders in the construction industry engaging and investing in social value is no longer optional, it’s essential.

Targeted and ongoing engagement with schools to mentor students and promote careers in construction is one the best ways that infrastructure companies can have a positive social impact. Meaningful early intervention can shine a light, encouraging children, particularly girls and those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, to consider the multi-faceted construction industry as an exciting and promising career path in the future.

Traditionally, careers guidance involved face-to-face talks, office-based work experience placements or on-site visits. Coronavirus has changed all that, forcing companies and schools to rethink how they engage to make sure all pupils – particularly those from disadvantaged areas – have equal access to careers advice and awareness of workplace opportunities so that they make informed subject choices.

While coronavirus has caused the sector to contract and, in many instances, revisit training and apprenticeship schemes, it is vital that the industry remains engaged with schools and young people. Not only do we need to deliver social value at a time when it is desperately needed – and increasingly required for those who supply to public bodies – we must also invest time now to bridge a potential future skills gap.

In this article, we offer some creative solutions to help employers engage remotely with schools to ensure that we continue to connect with hard-to-reach students and attract the best talent to our sector.

The benefit of meaningful engagement with schools

The benefits of good quality careers advice are well documented. Meaningful contact with employers and the subsequent insights provided into workplace opportunities have been shown to have positive effects. Experience of the workplace is a core component of the Gatsby Benchmarks of Good Career Guidance, which comprises part of the UK Government’s career strategy for schools and colleges. The sixth benchmark states that: “Every student/learner should have first-hand experiences of the workplace through work visits, work shadowing and/or work experience to help their exploration of career opportunities and expand their networks.”

Furthermore, meaningful contact with young people is essential if the industry is to reverse negative perceptions. In a recent report, housing association L&Q found that nine out of ten people were not interested in a career in construction, despite being interested in relevant subjects[4].

Three years ago, AECOM partnered with The Careers and Enterprise Company, an organisation that facilitates world-class careers education in schools, to become an Enterprise Advisor at an all-girls school in Birmingham, where the majority of pupils are from BAME backgrounds and around a quarter are on free school meals. The role involved designing a varied work experience programme to introduce students to a variety of roles available within such a large, multi-disciplinary company such as AECOM, and gave students the chance to experience an office environment first-hand.

The feedback was excellent, and we had some very positive, tangible results. Three school students who had taken a work experience placement with our Birmingham team subsequently applied to study for either a degree or apprenticeship in quantity surveying. Traditionally, uptake of A Level Physics at the school had been minimal, so we approached members of the team to give talks on how studying physics had helped them open opportunities. Incredibly, the number of girls taken the exam jumped from zero to seven. Previously unpopular seminars on the subject were suddenly well attended.

Then coronavirus struck and lockdown measures put paid to our work experience plans. It struck us that the world of careers advice was going to look very different and as a result, the opportunities available to young people and the level of awareness about our sector could be much the poorer for it.

Sadly, this effect would be most keenly felt in schools in disadvantaged areas with a high number of students eligible for pupil premium. There are fears that school shut-downs accentuate the socio-economic divide in educational attainment. For remote learning to be successful, students need laptops, resources and a supportive home environment. If pupils don’t have access to these things, careers advice and engagement with employers simply won’t be a priority.

There’s a real danger that the momentum gained in recent years to work towards closing the skills gap in our industry and driving a more diverse and inclusive environment will be lost – unless we act now.

Successful engagement in a remote learning environment

Here are five recommended actions that companies can take to help schools comply with Gatsby benchmarks.

1/Encourage senior professionals to volunteer as enterprise advisors

Volunteering as an Enterprise Advisor (EA) is very rewarding. An initiative run by The Careers and Enterprise Company, EAs help schools’ careers leads shape their advice strategy by making sure that it is relevant – essential in the current climate. Individuals need to use strong leadership and communication skills, as well as strategic thinking.

2/Encourage graduates to become STEM ambassadors

Another way to help is to encourage graduates and apprentices to become STEM ambassadors. At AECOM we have around 400 STEM ambassadors; every one of our graduates takes on this role and is tasked with having one to two engagements with schools each year. AECOM’s recent cohort of STEM ambassadors have made a series of educational videos on STEM subjects – watch them here and here.

3/Adapt to new ways of spreading the message

During lockdown, we all had to adapt to working remotely and interacting with colleagues through virtual means and it is likely that this will continue for the foreseeable future. We can use these newly-developed skills to continue to spread positive messages to schools about careers in the construction sector through virtual presentations, virtual careers fairs and through short videos that teachers can show in class. The key is little and often. We can continue to use these methods even when schools eventually return.

4/Virtual work experience

When coronavirus hit and offices closed, we had to think differently about the way we delivered pre-arranged work experience, as we didn’t want to simply cancel. Instead, we arranged a virtual session between students and several of our AECOM team members who each delivered a presentation to explain their current role, how they got there and the reasons why they enjoy working in the sector.

Despite this scaled-down approach, this small initiative still had huge benefit as the school students were able to ask questions relating to AECOM, as well as about the construction and engineering industries in general.

5/Focus on skills, not just technical knowledge

It is vital that our future workforce is adaptable and flexible, willing to try new things and ready to have an impact in any area of construction that they want to be involved with.

So, don’t just talk about the technical knowledge needed for a specific role such as in quantity surveying or engineering. Focus instead on the need for strong skills as a communicator and presenter, being analytical and having an aptitude to learn, and the need to be ambitious, enthusiastic and energetic about one’s career.

Locking in social value

Continued engagement with schools is essential if we are to ensure a healthy interest in construction as an exciting and fulfilling career path. While coronavirus is forcing a rethink, there are ways that companies can continue to engage meaningfully with young people in this new working environment. Proactive interventions and initiatives to offer work placements drive progress towards social value goals.

Against a background of much stronger public procurement guidance, the sector must up its game and invest in social value. This must be done even though industry faces a host of additional logistical, economic and operational challenges from the on-going pandemic. The best way to achieve this is to play to strengths within organisations and align activity to local societal needs.