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How the built environment can unlock opportunities for skills

03 July 2019

Josie Rothera explains why industry needs to focus on lifelong learning, engagement and diversity to tackle the skills gap. 

How the built environment can unlock opportunities for skills
Josie Rothera, Chartered Engineer and Course Director at Leeds Beckett University

We live in a built environment. Vast networks of pipes and cables provide us water, heat and connectivity, buildings give us shelter and infrastructure allows us to connect supporting socio-economic markets. Water, warmth, shelter, growth.

Our built environment is fragile. As we grow, how we choose to develop land and technologies needs to adopt a long-term sustainable approach supported by end-user awareness to inform evolving values and habits.

Managing the built environment successfully requires knowledge, skills and experience – and a lot of it. As technology changes and becomes more advanced, built environment projects are being challenged to identify the most appropriate technology to use and guesstimate how this might advance into in-use phases for the benefit of future generations.

There's been a significant commitment to upgrading and strengthening the built environment in the UK. This has been matched with funding promises stretching beyond 2021.

We need the skills

To meet this pipeline of work, it's been estimated that we need 444,000 extra built environment employees every year for the next five years.

Nationally, the increasing awareness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the past 25 years has increased the numbers of apprenticeships and undergraduates in the built environment.

However, recent research (HESA, 2017 and Engineering UK, 2016) still identifies gaps between students entering the built environment, and still being there a year into their roles. So what can be done about skills?

Three actions: lifelong learning, engagement and diversity

In May 2019, the slightly delayed Post-18 Education Review led by Sir Philip Augar was published. There were over 50 recommendations. A decent proportion of the focus was given to skills: to identify skills sets that will provide tangible input into our economy, and, in my opinion a pivotal recommendation, an approach to ‘lifelong’ learning.

There's a stigma around education and who it's for. Far too often we emphasise the benefit of undergraduate learning to young people – a gateway to a career. When an undergraduate starts at university and is older than 21, they're a ‘mature’ student. UCAS figures show that ‘over half are between 21 and 24, 38% between 25 and 39 and only 10% over 40 when they commence their courses’.

As professional engineers, we're all bound by a code of conduct and this places a responsibility on us to maintain our continual professional development (CPD) – this includes learning new skills, and could be over a longer period of time as opposed to just a day or two in the year, hence include degree courses.

How could this approach be supported and offered by organisations? Another consideration to note, and also mentioned in the Augar Review, is the provision of module learning over a longer period of time.

Higher education institutes need to be flexible in their content delivery to allow for time pressures and commitments for both work and family. Content in vocational degree courses such as civil engineering is only enhanced by experience, so a longer mode of learning would surely produce higher classifications in final degrees.

'A portfolio of careers'

This is what I keep hearing: people don't want to choose a career in one discipline and stick with it, the same company, the same people for 50 years (and more) and then retire.

For me, this is a call for action on engagement: for the generation of Baby Boomers and before, engagement levels are 38%; this drops to 31% up to the Millennials, which supposes then that those born more recently will have even lower levels of engagement.

It's estimated that by 2020, our workforce will be 30% Millennial, and that they only stay in a job for about two years. The average cost to replace them is £15k to 25k, thereto an engaged workforce contributes to the ROI for the company.

A key strength of the built environment is that there are so many roles, skill sets and different environments in which to work, our industry can sustain employee engagement throughout working careers.

If we can showcase the different job roles that are in the industry, and line managers can better contribute to an individual’s skills progress in an area that they're engaged in, then there's a job out there for everyone.

'Our industry isn't diverse'

My third point is around diversity. Our industry is not diverse. According to McKinsey, organisations would perform 15% better if we were gender diverse.

Another report states that if everyone had an equal chance to job roles, this would add about £44bn to UK GDP.

It’s staggering to think that as an industry full of exciting opportunities, and a vital role to ensuring sustainable communities for the future, we're struggling to recruit a diverse workforce.

It's not just our industry that has a reputation for a lack of gender balance and a representation of BAME, but we are falling behind as others stand out and make examples of what diverse organisations can look like.

This has to start with leadership: clear policies on inclusion, training, flexible working, recruitment, procurement and wellbeing need to stand out.

The use of role models and mentoring is one successful approach to raising awareness – I'm sure there are countless others.

How to tackle skills in our industry?

There's no one clear way that works for all organisations. It needs to be a considered and committed review by leadership, supported by contributions from employees and managers.

And the three areas for review? Lifelong learning, which will feed into engagement, and a real, honest look at diversity.

  • Josie Rothera, consultant trainer at PL Projects