Friday, 28 November 2014

Baking builders, singing bananas

Now the finishing trades...
It is the Annual Conference of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). The theme is Inspiring the Future of Construction.  There is a good mix of men and women speakers and CIOB President Professor Ghassan Aouad, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Gulf University for Science and Technology has flown in from Bahrain to officiate. 

So far, so good. But it doesn’t take long for the waves of déjà vu to roll. Once again in this boom/bust industry of ours, we are facing an acute skills shortage, which would be even worse without immigrant workers.  And the reasons are very familiar:
·      bad image
·      poor careers advice
·      low margins.

Sir John Armitt delivers his customary incisive view. “Look in the mirror, “ he tells us. “Overturn the stereotypes, and take the lead from third generation builder Richard Burr who reached the finals of the Great British Bake-Off by creating marvellous cakes and pastries – with his pencil tucked behind his ear.”

Ian Billyard, head of Leeds College of Building is to pick up the image again in the afternoon, saying that pictures of a chap in front of a crane in a hard hat is simply old hat. New technology is the way forward for construction, he says.

But back to Sir John. It is unacceptable for an industry to have its future decided by politicians, he adds, and training should not be funded by government. He bemoans the loss of the training and development ethos when subcontracting took over in the industry, but points out that this is still alive and well amongst the small and medium sized companies and family businesses.  I can vouch for this, remembering the support from such organisations for getting women from trade training into work, and in delivering innovative mentoring programmes when on the board of Simons Group Ltd.

“I defy anyone to tell me that it is impossible for companies to take the lead,” is Sir John’s parting shot. “The only people who put this right are in the industry.” 

Close encounters at the Big Bang Fair
Peter Hansford, the Government's Chief Construction Adviser, continues the themes, citing the Construction Industry Training Board survey revealing that 35% of careers advisors see construction as an unappealing job. He holds up the Big Bang Fair and Tomorrow’s Engineers as good examples to follow. This is music my ears after six years of involvement with EngineeringUK, the body that conceived Big Bang and helps deliver it around the country.  But construction has been notable by its absence, despite the event being recognized as a great way to engage not only young people but also their teachers and parents.

Alison Watson enthusing a Class of Your Own
Peter Hansford urges  companies to adopt  a school, and indeed in the afternoon it is a school and its pupils who help push the pace up a notch, introduced by fast talking Alison Watson, the land surveyor who founded Class of Your Own (COYO) using her award winning programme design, engineer,construct (DEC) developed just  five years ago.

Demonstrating by example, the stage is taken by the head and deputy head of Heathcote School, together with four students who are embarking on construction careers as a result of the COYO programme. They are followed by 14 year Luke Hamble, aspiring engineer from Gravesend who had his first tool set when he was two years old, upgraded at four years old and at seven was using his father’s equipment. His clear delivery puts some of the adults that day to shame.

Alison Watson and Ian Billyard are joined for the closing panel session by Roy Cavanagh of Seddon Construction (one of those exemplar smaller businesses committed to training) and Salvatore Capotosto, Chair of CIOB’s East of England Novus Group representing young people in the industry.

I ask, "We have been talking about bad image, poor careers advice and lack of diversity for twenty years. We know that much progress is thanks to smaller companies and  committed individuals who spend too much time seeking modest funding to survive, rather than delivering more of what works. What does the panel think industry should do to learn from these examples, scale them up for real change and take part in the bigger picture?"

This generates a wry laugh from Alison Watson, who comments that I must have overheard her finance director’s earlier comment about going around cap in hand for money. And as for involvement in the Big Bang Fair? “When I went with my daughter, I couldn’t drag her away from the electrical engineering demonstration that shows current flowing through different types of fruit,” she says. “Construction engagement needs to be more entertaining.  We are up against singing bananas.”

So let’s do some of the creative, inter-disciplinary working we claim to be good at in construction. When students stress test their bridges made of pasta,  for example, a switch triggers a sound and light show. Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water perhaps, or Nessun Dorma for a Sydney Harbour lookalike. 

Sheffield College students pushing the limits

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