Dave Stitt FCIOB shares his candid opinion on why construction is failing to tackle the skills crisis
Most young people don’t start thinking about their career until it’s time for them to get an actual job. That’s why I believe the thinking outlined in the article, Attracting the workforce of the future, is seriously outdated.
It says that if we could just get into schools to tell kids how cool construction really is, more kids will choose construction. We’ve been saying this since 1976, by the way, which is when I fell accidentally into the industry.
The first problem with this sentiment is that people who say it never say how it can be done, or who should do it. It’s always “the industry” must do this or that, as if “the industry” has agency and a controlling mind, when it’s really just the sum of the companies, clients and individuals working in it.
The second problem is, it won’t work. Kids aren’t equipped to think in any detailed way about what jobs they might do. The real world of work is impenetrable to them.
They might aspire to certain roles that society glamourises, and some will go on to achieve those aims. If you tried to enthuse them about being a quantity surveyor or an architectural technologist, their eyes would glaze over.
I saw this myself whilst volunteering to talk to schools about engineering in the 1990s.
Nobody’s problem but mine
The industry doesn’t care about the skills shortage because it can’t think or feel or act.
If I’m a construction company boss having trouble recruiting talent, it’s not the industry’s problem, it’s mine. It would be negligent of me to carry on as usual hoping that somehow the industry will pull itself together.
The first question I would ask is: are the young people I employ having such a good time working here that they tell their friends about it, and encourage them to work here, too?
I question this because young adults don’t look to industry spokespeople for guidance on what to do, they watch what their peers are doing and ask: “Should I do that?”
Coach-managers don’t tell their people what to do, because they know their people already know what to do, probably better than the managers themselves. Instead, they ask their people how they’re going to fulfil their accountabilities
They’re not big fans
In 2020, I surveyed 566 UK construction professionals under the age of 39, asking how likely it was they’d recommend working in construction to other young professionals.
Only 43% felt able to promote the industry. Most (57%) felt unable to do so – including those who were indifferent (41%) or outright disaffected (16%).
Think about that. If only 43% of under-39s in my company could honestly recommend working there, I’d consider that a big problem.
Young people find it hard to love their jobs in construction, I believe, because of our default, command-and-control management culture.
I know it well, having been a command-and-control supremo for the 20 years or so I spent at the sharp end of delivering projects with national contractors.
As a command-and-control manager, I felt it was my job to have all the answers, to issue orders accordingly, and to make sure they were obeyed – enforcing my will, in other words.
The problem with this is it leaves managers stressed and burning out, and the people who report to them stressed and disengaged. It also leads to error, waste and conflict, which stresses everyone out.
What’s the alternative?
A better way is coaching. Managers can be coaches. In construction especially, they should be coaches.
Coach-managers don’t tell their people what to do, because they know their people already know what to do, probably better than the managers themselves. Instead, they ask their people how they’re going to fulfil their accountabilities.
They ask this with supportive, open curiosity, not in a leading or put-you-on-the-spot way. Then they cultivate a particular type of conversation, called a coaching conversation, designed to help their people think afresh, and for themselves, about what they’ll do next.
I know coaching techniques help young managers lead more effectively and create happier, more engaged teams. I know it helps young managers avoid the pitfalls of command-and-control.
Coaching makes things better for people, so they can enjoy their work while growing in confidence and capability.
I know because they told me. In 2021, I developed an online course for young construction professionals called Coach for Results. Around 40 people made up the first cohort, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
For example, two young women, Holly and Alex, are both business development managers for a national contractor. Neither studied a traditional construction discipline. Both said the techniques gave them more traction in doing their jobs.
You can read the detailed feedback the first cohort gave in my book, Coach for Results.
Be a talent magnet
I propose we update our thinking about the skills crisis, which hasn’t changed since I joined the industry 47 years ago.
Let’s leave the school kids alone and change the culture of our companies so that, instead of wearing young people down, we’re building them up.
When that happens, and they’re having a great time, their mates will beat a path to our door.
Dave Stitt FCIOB is a chartered civil engineer, and professional certified coach at DSA Building Performance.