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Bridging the careers aspiration gap

Friday, 26 Jan 2018

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

‘I always said as a kid that I would like to play for United’. In joining Manchester United this week, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez fulfilled many a young person’s dream; and on a reported weekly wage of £450,000. With such fortune and fame at stake, who could blame our youngest people for believing that they too could follow in Alexis’s footsteps? Indeed a recent survey, Drawing the Future, asked 13,000 primary school children what their preferred career would be. The most popular careers choices were in sport, social media, gaming and singing. And given that research shows that the pattern of jobs chosen by seven-year-olds is very similar to the choices of 17-year-olds, we should take these surveys seriously. Of most pressing concern is that young people’s career interests are often very different from the careers that the economy needs.

This has been brought into focus by the Federation of Master Builders’ State of Trade Survey, which is the definitive account of construction needs amongst SMEs. Right now, across the UK, there is a crisis-level shortage of construction skills. Over 60% of construction firms are struggling to find enough bricklayers, carpenters and joiners. Plumbers and plasterers too are also in record-high demand. Why does this matter? If we are to meet new house building targets (300,000 homes every year in England alone) we’re going to need thousands of skilled hands to build walls, fit the pipes and lay the floors. The UK Industrial Strategy and large rail, road and infrastructure projects pre-suppose the availability of skilled labour. Over the past decade much of the skilled labour needed for these projects has been sourced from other EU countries; Brexit is beginning to change this dimension with increasing numbers of EU citizens returning to their home nations and the UK’s ability to replace them in the years ahead made more difficult by likely tougher migration controls. It’s for this reason that home-grown skills are going to need to be our answer when it comes to the question of how to deliver the construction skills we need across England, Scotland, Wales and N Ireland. This is easier said than done when you consider that whereas over 20% of today’s primary school children want to be the next Alexis Sanchez, only 0.1% think being a plumber or a carpenter is where their future lies.

Being good with your hands might not make you a millionaire within a month, but it could lead you to earning a very good salary with solid career prospects. Brickies in London are able to routinely secure in excess of £60,000 per year, such is the demand for their very highly skilled trade. According to the Drawing the Future research, less than one per cent of children said they knew about a job through someone visiting their school. We need to put this right and we already have brickies, plumbers, carpenters and joiners with real star power: they are called Team UK.

At the most recent Skills Olympics held in Abu Dhabi in October 2017 these incredibly talented young people delivered a top 10 medal-winning performance on the world’s toughest stage. I want names like Scotland’s Jordan Charters (in painting and decorating) and England’s Dan Martins (in plumbing) to be the Alexis’s of the skills world. They build on the legacy of people like Ashley Terron (former Team UK gold medallist in bricklaying) who has built an impressive career in management at home builder Redrow. We’ll do that by expanding the successful programme we have trialled with the Careers & Enterprise Company in England which gets Team UK members into schools to share their experiences with young people to inspire them to follow in their footsteps in choosing apprenticeships and technical career routes.

Clearly, we need to get a much firmer grip on finding solutions to the construction skills gaps we face. At WorldSkills UK, I believe we can help. We’re uniquely placed to bring together partners in the construction sector to address the challenges we face. It’s why we will soon be convening stakeholder roundtables to look at some of these questions and with a view to making the Skills Show 2018 a massive celebration of construction skills.  After all, if we can help encourage more young people to sign-up for rewarding careers in construction, we are helping solve the problem of building new homes for more families and upgrading our national infrastructure. With the greatest of respect to a certain J Mourinho of Old Trafford, these signings would represent the best business of any transfer window!

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