Constructions Challenge: Engage with Students or Risk Business and Social Decline

Paul Drechsler, Chairman and Chief Executive of Wates Group says that the industry must take the future into its own hands by embracing education.

The difference between two summers – 2012 and 2011 – was the crossroads Paul Drechsler spoke of in his JCT Povey Lecture address, entitled “At the crossroads – a wasted generation or inspired talent. The power to choose”, at Local Government House on Thursday 15 November.

Summer 2012: the achievements of Great Britain in the Olympic and Paralympic games drew society together to celebrate hard work, perseverance, aspiration, hope and attainment. Summer 2011: high streets across the UK are ablaze as rioters take to the streets in a violent wave of destruction, a culmination of people’s lack of hope, lack of opportunity, disenfranchisement and anger.

Paul’s question was which path do we continue to follow?

“Do we see ourselves moving forward along the path in which our young people learn about achievement, positive life experiences and the great sense of self-respect that can be theirs if they work for it – the kind of thing that we saw during the Olympics and Paralympics? Or, do we find ourselves drifting down a route which sees a large chunk of the population experiencing alienation, poverty of expectation and the kind of lawless disenchantment that we saw during the summer of 2011?”

The answer is that the UK must take steps now to ensure the former, and as Paul points out, business – and in particular the construction industry – has the opportunity to lead.

Paul referenced several figures which made for grim reading: almost a third of children in the UK are living in poverty, a fifth of young people are NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training), nearly 2m children live in workless households, 29% of the poorest families have no books in their home, and a fifth young people from deprived homes believe that few or none of their goals are achievable.

Worse still, the UK has dropped an average of 16 places in the international education rankings for literacy, numeracy and science between 2003 and 2009.

This is bad news for the construction industry. It needs to identify, recruit and train 85,000 skilled individuals each year to cope with the next decade’s demand. Yet it appears that the talent pool is stagnating.

However, Paul is a passionate believer that this situation can be turned around, if the construction industry takes positive steps to raise the aspiration and attainment of young people, and engage with them early, through education.

“Increasingly, numbers of people – especially young people – feel that the corporate world is against them and is something to be attacked and defeated […] we need to show that, when it comes to social exclusion, dangerous inequality and lack of opportunity, we are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“Our job in construction […] is very much about identifying a problem and then finding a practical solution to it. Based not only on my own career and also much of what I have seen happen at Wates and across the industry, I know that there are simple, practical steps we can all take to help society, to help our sector and to help businesses.”

The Wates Group is already involved in several schemes to address these issues. Their “Business Futures” scheme is a programme for long-term unemployed adults, including former prisoners and offenders, which provides training – both practical and soft-skills, as well as insight into the construction industry. They recently celebrated their 550th person go through the programme, with over 50% of these finding permanent employment.

In addition, Wates are signed up to “Business Class”, the flagship education programme of Business in the Community, of which Paul is Chair of the Education and Leadership Team. Business Class is designed to create long-term strategic partnerships between schools and businesses, focusing on leadership and governance, the curriculum, enterprise and employability. Over 145 companies are signed up to the scheme, which now reached into 220 schools across the UK.

Wates employees alone have donated over 500 hours, working with 2500 students across eight Business Class partnerships. Encouragingly the statistics show a marked improvement in the academic achievement of schools involved in partnerships (up 38%) with 85% of schools saying that it was either very or extremely beneficial to have a business partnership and that they want more employer engagement.

Wates is also one of 37 Construction and Services companies that are part of The Prince’s Trust’s ‘Get into Construction & Services Programme’. The scheme focuses on young people aged 16-24 who are NEET. Over 2,500 young people have completed the programme.

As Paul pointed out in his lecture a great start has been made, but there is still a lot of work to do, and therein lies the industry’s challenge:

“So, let me ask you, let me lay down a challenge if you like – have you engaged strategically with schools in your area? Have you thought about the possibilities of working with them? What about talking to your own kids’ Head Teachers? As you can see, the demand is there – and the results can be very impressive.

“The Construction Industry is a great industry: it really matters, it really counts and it really cares. These are tough times, especially for our industry, but even more so for the 2 million young people not in employment, education or training. So, there is a short-term issue. More importantly in the long-term, unless we engage to support Head Teachers and schools to transform education in the UK, we will become less competitive and the challenges will become greater in the future.”

Click here to read Paul Drechsler’s lecture in full. A video presentation will be available to view soon.

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