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Why construction industry needs a new narrative to win the war for talent

Attracting the brightest and best young talent into any industry is tough. But some industries have it easier than others. Whether it’s through building great brand awareness, offering next-generation working environments, applying cutting-edge technology or simply gaining a reputation for looking after staff, the likes of finance, technology and law have an abundant pool of young talent to pick from. Deutsche Bank, for instance, reported that more than 110,000 young people applied for its graduate programme last year, with only 600 having a chance of succeeding to the next stage.

Unfortunately, the construction industry is at the other end of the spectrum and seems to be moving in the wrong direction. With an aging workforce and an inability to attract a large enough cohort of young talent to join its ranks, it faces steady decline. It is even more frustrating that, unlike in finance, technology and law, we often create a lasting legacy to be proud of yet cannot convince young people that the process is worth participating in.

Our increased reliance on overseas workers in professional, technical and trade roles is simply a reflection of the fact that domestic home-grown talent just doesn’t see the industry as an aspirational career, despite the ability to earn good money.

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Not surprisingly in today’s society, TV, print and social media have all increasingly played their part in reinforcing a negative image of the construction sector. By rightly reporting on the many problems surrounding new-build quality or poor delivery performance of major projects, the prevailing public image of construction is of an industry defunct, and bereft of leadership. More often than not construction is seen as a last-chance saloon for young workers, rather than a stable and rewarding career worth pursuing.

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It pains me to say it, but the plethora of school outreach programmes and image improvement initiatives being run by industry bodies and businesses are on the whole not fundamentally addressing the core issue of needing to change what our industry does and how it does it. All the good intentions are just sticking-plasters to a systemic misalignment between a generational shift in work-life balance aspirations and the career opportunities we offer, defined largely by traditional ways of creating built assets.

My father was a stonemason and my eldest son is about to graduate as an urban planner. I am proud of my family’s lineage in the built environment, but I want that to continue sustainably based on it being an enjoyable and rewarding process, not just a family calling.

Late last year, architect and TV presenter George Clarke asked me to join his Ministry of Building Innovation+Education (Mobie) charity as a trustee. It was a quick and easy decision based on the shared passion George and I have – to positively disrupt the industry and finally move the built environment into the 21st century. George’s TV work shows what you can do if you bring dynamic and passionate advocacy to the world of creating quality homes and spaces that celebrate both simplicity and cutting-edge creative innovation. He has built empathy with a younger generation and a highly diverse audience much more effectively than any construction industry or government image initiative could.

We need to compete better with other industries in the war for talent, by constructing and using a new authentic narrative for the industry. This must align with the path the industry needs to take to secure its future. It must be led by how we combine human design flair and creativity with a new way of making, in order to create great products and happy customers. We need a consumer and quality led process with great design at its heart: design for innovation, design for manufacture and assembly, and design for beauty. It’s no accident that some of the most successful businesses in the world are design, engineering and technology led. Construction needs to move towards this space quickly.

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Source: Mark Farmer is chief executive officer of consultant Cast and trustee of charity Mobie

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