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Last edited 23 Jul 2019
How the built environment can unlock opportunities for skills
The built environment is a vast network of pipes and cables to provide us water, heat and connectivity; buildings give us shelter, and infrastructure allows us to connect supporting socio-economic markets. Water, warmth, shelter, growth.
Managing the built environment successfully requires knowledge, skills and experience – and a lot of it. As technology changes and becomes more advanced, built environment projects are being challenged to identify the most appropriate technology to use and guesstimate how this might advance into in-use phases for the benefit of future generations.
Nationally, the increasing awareness of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the past 25 years has increased the numbers of apprenticeships and undergraduates in the built environment.
However, recent research (HESA, 2017 and Engineering UK, 2016) still identifies gaps between students entering the built environment, and still being there a year into their roles. So what can be done about skills?
 Three actions: lifelong learning, engagement and diversity
In May 2019, the slightly delayed Post-18 Education Review led by Sir Philip Augar was published. There were over 50 recommendations. A decent proportion of the focus was given to skills to identify skills sets that will provide tangible input into our economy, and, a potentially pivotal recommendation, an approach to ‘lifelong’ learning.
There is a stigma around education and who it is for. Far too often emphasis is placed on the benefit of undergraduate learning to young people – a gateway to a career. When an undergraduate starts at university and is older than 21, they're a ‘mature’ student. UCAS figures show that ‘over half are between 21 and 24, 38% between 25 and 39 and only 10% over 40 when they commence their courses’.
As professional engineers, we are all bound by a code of conduct and this places a responsibility on us to maintain our continual professional development (CPD). This includes learning new skills, and could be over a longer period of time as opposed to just a day or two in the year, so degree courses should be included.
How could this approach be supported and offered by organisations? Another consideration to note, and also mentioned in the Augar Review, is the provision of module learning over a longer period of time.
Higher education institutes need to be flexible in their content delivery to allow for time pressures and commitments for both work and family. Content in vocational degree courses such as civil engineering is only enhanced by experience, so a longer mode of learning would surely produce higher classifications in final degrees.
 'A portfolio of careers'
It is frequently heard that people do not want to choose a career in one discipline and stick with it, the same company, the same people for 50 years (and more) and then retire.
This is a call for action on engagement: for the generation of baby boomers and before, engagement levels are 38%; this drops to 31% up to the millennials, which supposes that those born more recently will have even lower levels of engagement.
It is estimated that by 2020, the UK workforce will be 30% millennial, and that they only stay in a job for about two years. The average cost to replace them is £15k to £25k, thus an engaged workforce contributes to the ROI for the company.
A key strength of the built environment is that there are so many roles, skill sets and different environments in which to work that our industry can sustain employee engagement throughout working careers.
If the different job roles in the industry can be showcased, and line managers can better contribute to an individual’s skills progress in an area that they are engaged in, then there is a job out there for everyone.
 'Our industry isn't diverse'
The third point is around diversity. Our industry is not diverse. According to McKinsey, organisations would perform 15% better if they were gender diverse.
It is staggering to think that as an industry full of exciting opportunities, and a vital role to ensuring sustainable communities for the future, the industry struggles to recruit a diverse workforce.
It is not just our industry that has a reputation for a lack of gender balance and a representation of BAME, but it is falling behind as others stand out and make examples of what diverse organisations can look like.
The use of role models and mentoring is one successful approach to raising awareness –there are countless others.
And the three areas for review? Lifelong learning, which will feed into engagement, and a real, honest look at diversity.
 About this article
This article was written by Josie Rothera, Course Director for postgraduate civil engineering courses at Leeds Beckett University. It was previously published in July 2019 on the website of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and can be accessed here.
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