Sarah Cooke

Looking for the skills gap solution? Think older

Students should not be the only recruitment focus for the construction industry. Instead, companies should look to hire those looking to change their career, writes Sarah Cooke of Wates.

You do not have to be fresh out of school to start a career in construction, as we have found at Wates. We have expanded our job market horizons to all of those in their 20s and 30s, and the result is our team is growing in a holistic way that brings in greater diversity and a different way of thinking.

For example: we have recently taken on Raegan Moss, a former prison officer, to become a section manager on our £160m project for the Ministry of Justice. Raegan brings with her a unique perspective and first-hand experience on how these facilities operate. Her inherent knowledge of security risks and logistical requirements is already helping us determine the best way to deliver the scheme with minimum impact to the live prison.

To attract employees like Raegan, construction companies cannot simply post a job ad and hope for the best. We need to change the way we recruit employees to appeal to Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2009.

Gen Z already outnumbers its Millennial predecessors, coming in at 30% of the world’s population. Deloitte’s study on Gen Z in the workplace showed that they care less about money and more about work satisfaction. They want interesting jobs with companies that can demonstrate commitment to sustainability, inclusivity, and diversity. They value human and social connection. A fast-paced job where they get to work with an empire of young people doing cool stuff is ideal.

Because of all of this, Gen Z is not afraid to job hunt. This presents a huge opportunity for our industry.

Construction offers so many career options, from delivering social impact to focusing on digital delivery. Roles can range from business analytics to strategic account management. There really is something for everyone, beyond delivering on site.

The key lies in a series of transferable skills that are far from unique to construction. We should keep an eye out for effective communication skills, the ability to work within a team, risk analysis, record keeping, analytical skills, problem solving, and time management. These are skills you can find in a variety of sectors, such as those in the military or even in the gaming industry.

Bringing in career changers has its challenges. We have robust on-boarding processes to ensure an easy transition into our business. And we train our line managers to understand how to coach people from other industries or people who are returning to work, to ensure they stay with us.

We also make sure their learning and development plans are in place so they feel like they are taking the right steps towards competency, and they know how they can grow with our business. The industry needs to ensure employees know they can work flexibly – Gen Z and those returning to work for whatever reason will have needs outside of work.

Natalie Milton, our assistant quantity surveyor who joined our trainee scheme from the events industry in her late 20s, has worked on our all-female commercial team delivering a school for the Department for Education and is now working on our £160m project for the MOJ.

“A lot of people think construction will be 8am to 5pm and that’s it,” she said. “I’ve found Wates to be particularly flexible with me. They’ve been great if I’ve had an issue, saying ‘it’s no problem’. I make sure I recompense for that, but they’ve been fantastic.

“We’re a very welcoming industry,” Natalie said. “We just want people to do well. I think we need to get that across.”

We’re making a conscious effort to do all of this at Wates. We are looking at our future pipeline and our secured work to establish our needs and matching them to other industries, like with Raegan and Natalie.

Wates is ensuing our workplace is diverse and inclusive, so there are no barriers to entry for any candidate. If the rest of the construction industry can follow, we will find that the skills gap shrinks and diversity in the industry increases – and our projects will be the better for it.

  • Sarah Cooke is North West regional director at Wates

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I’m ever so grateful for being given a chance to retrain and start my career in the Built Environment industry at the age of 28. I was able to bring my strong design and communications skills to my new role as a Building Services Engineer apprentice. My background followed my passion for history and heritage, so it was a brave decision to try my hand at engineering, but as I come close to finishing my fourth year at university, I’m doing really well. Best decision ever and I now get to work on heritage projects in a different way.

By Rachael G

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