Construction's best kept secret?

Construction businesses are creating great opportunities for young people – but the news isn’t always getting out. The Duke of Gloucester Young Achievers Scheme spreads the word by promoting emerging talent and showing off what employers have to offer.

One of the highlights of my year is judging the Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme for Construction Youth Trust. By celebrating the emerging industry talent pool, the scheme highlights how construction businesses create great opportunities for people to fulfil their potential. 

Unfortunately it is difficult to separate these awards, the winners’ success stories and construction’s ongoing skills shortage. The recurrent challenge is why can’t employers create more great opportunities and why can’t more of our young people find them?

The Young Achievers Scheme celebrates a special blend of talent that can be found in young construction professionals working in client, consultant and contractor organisations. The awards aim to promote outstanding candidates who have not simply succeeded in their career, but who will also have faced challenges to their progress.

Candidates come from all backgrounds and have often overcome significant obstacles including illness, a slow start in school or cultural barriers to build successful, sustainable careers in construction. Winners not only receive mentoring support but also help the Construction Youth Trust.

One of the most striking aspects of the awards is not just the talent of the finalists but also the quality of career opportunity and development provided by their employers.

Many of the trainees that we see during the judging process have been given responsibility very early – it is not unusual to find a candidate in their very early twenties who is responsible for multimillion-pound projects or packages.

Another equally striking message is that careers within construction are hidden from sight; careers advisers are wary of vocational courses, many professional career paths are misunderstood and potential rewards are under-reported.

Construction has long recognised that it has a brand and image problem caused by the complexity of the industry, multitude of entry points and deep association with site-based work.

In an economy where many middle-ranking professional and managerial jobs are under threat from automation, the unpredictability of construction can be expected to sustain demand for high-quality professionals who are able to adapt to deliver successful projects.

Construction’s hidden potential as an employer of choice is a well-known industry challenge. In my experience, award candidates are more likely to say that they were the first member of their family to study at university rather than they were the first member of their family to enter the construction industry. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that construction is a harder industry to “fall into” than other less vocational subjects.

Employers have become much better at attracting non-cognate degree holders but with the battle hotting up for degree-level apprenticeships and other routes focused on early engagement and entry, capturing hearts and minds in schools will become ever more crucial.

So what insights can we take from the success stories of the award candidates and what can employers do to be more effective in recruitment markets? The first is that inspiration works. Candidates have told us about their early engagement with construction in the classroom, using giant Lego games, for example, that helped to determine a career choice in favour of the industry.

The second is that the vocational aspects of construction work are a barrier and an opportunity. The barrier is that candidates may be making career-defining choices at 16 or 18 years old when other choices will leave options open. The opportunity is that the apprenticeship route gives some young people the structure and time they need to develop skills that a conventional A level route does not permit.  

The third lesson is that construction firms need talent scouts. Many candidates, even at this stage of their career, have been with their firms for six or eight years – developing strong relationships and a high degree of commitment and loyalty supported in turn by mentoring and investment.

The fourth is that our candidates were all brilliant advocates for their industry and should be used more strategically to support schools and college engagement, placements and internships so that opportunities to reach out with potential recruits have maximum impact.

Construction has long recognised that it has a brand and image problem caused by the complexity of the industry, multitude of entry points and deep association with site-based work.

Construction’s best kept secret is that despite the barriers, it creates a large number of uniquely challenging and rewarding careers for a diverse range of people. Awards like the Duke of Gloucester’s scheme not only shine a light on construction’s ability to find and develop its people, but also emphasise the effort necessary to create a clear but flexible entry route that remains open to all.

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis UK

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