Lighting a fire under the construction industry

Convincing young people to enter the building industry is the challenge, which is where early intervention comes in, writes Quinton O’Reilly

13th October, 2019
From left: Sarah Murphy, managing director, Business Post Events and iQuest; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; Noel Kinane, Nigel Wearen and students of Terenure college, Dublin; Alison Watson, director of COYO; Andy Clifton of Topcon Positioning Group; and Mark Fagan of Topcon Positioning Group PIc: Maura Hickey

Of the many challenges the construction sector faces, a big one is attracting new and young talent. This is a sector that is seen to many as one for bricklayers and other similar trades but, in fact, the industry requires a vibrant array of skills ranging from architecture, planning and even digital skills.

The talent is out there, but having programmes that help shine a spotlight on the array of digital skills used within the sector is now more crucial than ever.

“It’s not just important – it’s vital,” said Andy Clifton, Applications Engineer – Geospatial, at Topcon Positioning Group. “For years now, the construction industry has been complaining that we haven’t got the skills . . . we have the skills, they’re just not coming into construction.

“Young people are very talented and clever, but the skills that we need, especially now going into the digital age of construction, are being filtered off into different industries like software, games development and visual effects. If you’re doing CGI in a movie, you’re creating a digital model of the world, so why are we not saying to these students that this is exactly what we’re doing?”

One challenge is removing the perception that construction involves traditional trades like bricklaying, or plastering. Projects like Class Of Your Own (COYO) – a built environment programme which introduces students aged between 11 and 18 to DEC (Design Engineer Construct) – are helping to address this.

By using tools that those in the construction industry already use, like Bentley’s MicroStation, students are given the opportunity to design buildings, like an eco-classroom, and see what they come up with.

It’s the practical and hands-on elements that make the programme accessible, as the technical side of design is a secondary consideration – something they can learn if they go into further education.

In a keynote at the CIF Conference, the founder and chief executive of COYO, Alison Watson, mentioned that it has created an adopt-a-school scheme, where companies like Topcon can go into schools and help teachers by providing equipment and expertise.

It can also tie into existing subjects like maths and science, bringing theory to life.

“I felt it was really important that we could go into schools and help teachers understand what we do,” Watson said.

“When you think about surveying, it’s trigonometry, measurement, spatial awareness. Talking about Pythagoras’s theorem is not about a dead bloke from 2,000 years ago, but a real, practical application that’s useful for our built environment. It brings the whole subject to life.”

Topcon has been a sponsor of COYO for ten years now, and Clifton mentions how, while there’s no expectation for works of art, the creations are impressive.

“Every single time I go into school, the skill level and the passion that these kids have when you give them the freedom and the ability is astounding,” he said. “It’s like giving them a blank sheet of paper.

“We help the schools and colleges by sponsoring them – not just with money, but with time and effort of going in as an industry professional, to sit with the students and help develop their ideas, to allow them to grow into the sector professionals we want. If we’re doing architecture, let’s get architects in to help the students understand what they’re doing.”

Another important part of this programme is how it integrates culture into the mix. Buildings aren’t isolated entities – they make up cities, towns, villages, and rural areas, and how they’re designed has an impact on the area.

That’s why the concept of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) is so important. By embracing the creative side of things, students and the next generation of construction workers coming through can develop solutions to building problems that may not have been done before.

Freedom to think up new solutions and express yourself can open up new pathways for future construction projects. In some cases, Clifton says, engineers have come in to schools, seen solutions the students came up with and immediately saw the value in applying them to future projects.

Exposing students to these opportunities and letting them get “bitten by the bug” is a key way of bringing them through.

“We need to embrace this and encourage freedom of thought before we start putting people into boxes and make construction appealing,” said Clifton. “Highlighting to students that they won’t just be standing in a muddy field – they’ll be here to design and help engineer all of our futures.”

While COYO has mainly been running in Britain, it has now brought its first Irish DEC programme to Terenure College in Dublin. The 11-week programme is being supported by Topcon and CIF and, although it only launched last month, Watson mentioned that it had already had an impact on students at the college.

“Since September, Topcon has been in there, and it’s been supplying and using laser scanners, it’s talked about UAVs. These students are absolutely engaged, absorbed and inspired.”

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