We’ve opened doors – but let’s not forget to open our offices too!

05 April 2019

We’ve opened doors – but let’s not forget to open our offices too!

Dr Vicky Hutchinson, ISG’s head of social value, addresses how the industry can tackle the misconception that construction is just what happens on site.

The annual Open Doors initiative, which closed the gates on a successful 2019 campaign in March, is billed as an opportunity for the public to go behind the hoardings and see what contemporary construction is really about.

But I’m starting to wonder whether as an industry what we’re actually presenting to the public, and most importantly to the prospective next generation of recruits, is an increasingly one-dimensional view of our industry, which individually has the potential to hamper our efforts to attract the brightest and best.

Our CEO recently visited a school in London’s East End and asked a classroom of year 11 students which of them were interested in a career in construction – out of 30 students just one put up their hand, and possibly only to save Paul’s embarrassment. When he then asked the class who wanted to work in a problem-solving role, using advanced computer modelling, VR/AR and app development, or marketing and finance, a succession of hands were thrust skywards.

The big reveal of course being that all of these disciplines lie at the heart of a modern, technology enabled main contractor like ISG. The salutary lesson here is that young people still do not have even a basic understanding of the orchestra of disciplines that all work together seamlessly to produce that flawless performance. When we go behind the hoardings for Open Doors-esque events, if we are not careful we merely perpetuate the misconception that construction is just what happens on site.

Our future in fact lies in the opposite direction, we need the smartest minds - problem solvers, radical thinkers and technology specialists, investing their energy and creativity in both the pre-construction and construction period, so that the site ‘assembly’ stage runs smoothly. We may marvel at the production line robots in a car plant, but we actually want to be in the office developing the designs and solutions that instruct those robots.

I wonder whether the issue is that our industry gets carried away with the process of construction – we’re fascinated with how things come together, excited by materials, interfaces and technical solutions – and we want to show these off through initiatives like Open Doors.

But is our audience really listening? – or are they just doing what that young learner did a few weeks back, making us feel good about ourselves. The generations that will take our industry forward have characteristics forged by the world they live in – motivations have changed, expectations, working patterns, career aspirations and ethics are all different.

A winter visit to a damp and cold construction site will inspire some, but others need to know that there is a massive back office effort that helps deliver this. We need to really inspire high-achieving STEM students to pick construction and showcase occupations that are both onsite and behind the scenes.

It’s incumbent on us all to work harder to not just rely on set piece events to accurately promote our sector – so with this in mind why not an 'Open Offices' event as well. We do just this with our World of Work Experience (WOWEX) initiative that brings high-achieving students into our offices, to speak to our technology specialists, our planners, designers, engineers and marketing teams, and we share the stories that so rarely get told.

We’ve opened doors – but let’s not forget to open our offices too

We’ve taken this a step further with our Level 3 Professional Construction Practice (PCP) qualification, where we now teach 16-18 year olds the absolute reality of working in construction – and guess what - 95% of this course does not require a live construction site to visit.

Our future prosperity depends upon a new narrative.

We are an amazing industry that create spaces that help people and businesses to thrive – we help cure people, deliver world-class education and transform lives through social mobility.

Now if we could capture some of this essence and provide a sense of perspective to those visitors who have looked behind the hoardings – then maybe we can start to change the construction conversation.