Career outreach ‘should focus on younger age groups’

The president of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has urged the construction industry to target younger age groups and take a longer-term view in tackling the industry’s skills shortage.

In an interview with Construction News, Rab Fletcher argued for a different approach to highlight the attractions of a career in the sector.

“In my opinion, as an industry, we start too late and target the wrong age group,” he said. “I would be looking at getting primary school kids interested – nine- or 10-year olds who love to design and build.

“We had a lady who came to one of our BESA forums in Scotland – she came in with a box of pipe cleaners, cardboard and Sellotape, Blue Peter-type stuff. She said she goes to primary schools and teaches kids about design, feasibility, engineering and construction. It sows the seeds.”

But wider outreach to primary schools would still not solve the pressing near-term recruitment problem facing construction and building-engineering services firms.

“Coming so closely after the pandemic, companies are struggling and they also have to cope with dramatically rising costs, plus a skills shortage,” Fletcher noted. “Speaking with contractors, they’re clearly busy but it’s not easy to obtain materials and people for jobs.”

So many school leavers in the UK each year proceed to university or find jobs in the service or retail sectors, he added, that “by the time you whittle it down for engineering trades, the pool has shrunk considerably”.

With this in mind, BESA marked last week’s National Apprenticeship Week with a drive to encourage its members to take on at least one apprentice this year.

“One member has already promised to take on 20,” Fletcher said.

He acknowledged that too many companies still regard apprenticeships as a sunk cost and worry that their trainees would be left with nothing to do if work dried up. “But when you analyse the return on investment, it’s a no-brainer,” especially as BESA offers funding support on request to members taking on apprentices.

Government statistics underline the challenge facing the building-engineering services sector in terms of recruiting young people.

The higher education entry rate for 18-year-olds in the UK peaked at 38.2 per cent in 2021 before dipping to 37.5 per cent last year – still a high proportion by historical standards.

Latest available figures, updated last week, show that just 6.4 per cent of 16- to 18-year-old school leavers went to a sustained apprenticeship in any industry in 2020-21, down from 8.4 per cent in 2019-20.

Fletcher and BESA communications consultant Ewen Rose emphasised that BESA also backs apprenticeships for older workers, including some who may have worked in building-engineering services before.

“We want to make the point strongly that apprenticeships are not just for young people,” Rose said.

“You may have been in the industry for a long time but lack the modern skills needed for the new technologies we have and new markets we’re getting into. An apprenticeship addresses this with learning on the job.”

School leavers and recent graduates “might be generally interested in engineering, but in building engineering we have an image problem” because so much of its essential activity goes unnoticed, he added.

“Young people don’t know about the work we do that affects everyday life – things like indoor air quality, lighting levels – and that we’re heavily into renewables and cutting-edge technologies.

“Our failure over the years, and what we’re trying to improve, is to present a more exciting and ‘sexy’ image for building services.”

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