School of Built Environment, Engineering and Computing

How can we ensure that the right skills are identified, supported and developed in education?

To celebrate International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March 2019, I was asked to join an Industry Skills Panel Discussion organised by Constructing Excellence Yorkshire and Humber, based at Leeds Beckett University, and delivered in partnership with Shulmans LLP.

Sophie Jennison Architecture Student

I was asked about what I thought was important in terms of skills for my area of work – and to provide key messages that the audience could take away. I attended not only as Course Director from Leeds Beckett University and Director of STEER Support & Mentoring CIC, but also a professional civil engineer with my own lifelong commitment to enhancing and supporting the skills of young people and colleagues in the industry.

The built environment industry is pushing a 3.1 million strong workforce, and there is about £60 billion that have been forecast to be spent in the next 10 years. Our skill sets need to be flexible: to reflect projects we work on, respond to stakeholder requirements which could be aligned with future technologies, and, what I believe to be a top priority, to work with different teams. Skills can be multi-disciplinary (breadth) and inter-disciplinary (transferrable).

So how can we ensure that the right skills are identified, supported and developed in education? In higher education, traditionally the student would benefit from the acquisition of knowledge and contribute to this in the form of a major project or research. The built environment disciplines require a vocational approach – this being teaching the skills needed for an occupation. In this way, skills in our industry are a combination of education and experience.

Below are my three messages, and whilst taken from a higher education perspective, can be applied to organisations in the built environment.

  1. Disrupt traditional methods of learning
    Disrupt is a fantastic way to describe how we can alter how we do something to try and learn the best way forward – and that might be different for everyone. Millennial and Generation Z students learn differently. The traditional classroom approach is now not the most practical learning method for them. We need to provide learning environments inclusive for everyone and this includes how they can access learning outside of a traditional approach such as video sessions, interactive programmes and audio feedback. We should also start to consider how we can introduce sharing platforms to the students: the use of a Common Data Environment (CDE) that could allow ontological understanding of digital collaboration that we are striving towards. Some thoughts should also be given to virtual and augmented reality in learning. Distance learning is popular especially for mature students used when in an existing career to allow great flexibility.
  2. Focus of the ‘soft’ skills
    During the session soft skills were identified more as ‘hard’ skills, as actually it was these that were more difficult to get right – I very much liked this! Forbes Magazine identifies soft skills as communication (and listening), accountability, problem solving and the use of empathy. They also argue that Generation Z's valuable characteristics are their acceptance of new ideas and a different conception of freedom from the previous generations. The 21st century graduate should be taught the importance of literacies, competencies and character qualities – quite a lot to do in 3 or 4 years. So just what can we do? An early awareness of the importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) needs to inspire the students to take responsibility for their careers as soon as possible. We can be very influential in education to help with reflective learning – how have they performed and what can be done differently next time. Deeming created the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle (from the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle) in 1993, based on organisational quality processes, but this can be applied to your own development: how to learn from your actions to get the best possible you out of you. This is an approach of reflective learning. In higher education for built environment students, we achieve this much better when we have industry input to support this reflective learning process – and this could be in the form of mentoring (see final point).
  3. Addressing the skills shortage
    Call it what you like: the skills shortage / the skills challenge / the skills gap. Fundamentally, there are not enough people choosing a career in the built environment to sustain our pipeline of work, and where we have opportunity to attract people from other careers, we are not doing so well on selling it. We need to attract, engage and retain.
    • Attract
      Most recently, apprenticeship routes into the industry are being pitched favourably to establish a good career path, reduce student debt, and end up with a professional qualification. In 2018 there were 3.5 times more students applying for this degree route which experts are saying will just continue growing. This year at Leeds Beckett University, we have had 65 Degree Apprenticeship students enrol. In three years, we can expect this to grow to 300. In terms of plugging the skills shortage, this is cost beneficial to the work place providers: they will get an employee with education and experience in parallel which will allow a faster skill development. That apprentice will be an asset to the organisation and add value from an early age.
    • Engage
      To do a ‘sandwich’ year is still a valid way to increase your skills and experiences in the industry – and more than likely will see you come back to university with a job opportunity or even a part time job. In September 2019, the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMiTE) will take its first intake of students, centered around intensive teaching in a learning environment that allows skills and use of technology for a blended experience. They are providing shorter, intensive educational learning using real life applications. To engage with the students these ways can inspire them as to the opportunities in the industry.
    • Retain
      The way that we approach skills in the UK is to focus very much on the young person and asking them to choose a degree at the age of 17. This is incredibly difficult for a young person to do. Millennials and Generation Z now wanted portfolios of careers – not just one. If this is the case, then skills learning (education and experience) should go much further then a degree, and into lifelong learning. You are never too old to learn, and if we an open the doors to more people coming from different sectors then our skills challenge might not just be that great.

Mentoring is a great way to show people interested in our careers, or ones already in the industry but not convinced of its longevity, that they can continue to be rewarding. STEER Support & Mentoring CIC are doing great work with Leeds Beckett University students, matching them with under-represented industry professionals to help them understand the different roles available to them in the built environment, and how best to achieve that. Connecting these students is hugely important to allow access to a wide range of professionals, from under-represented groups in the industry, who can guide them where necessary. Mentoring, along with skill development, should also be viewed as a lifelong activity.

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