Q&A: Why Balfour Beatty is supporting the sector’s schools-outreach initiative

Earlier this month, Construction News revealed emerging plans for a new initiative for contractors to collaborate on promoting the sector through schools outreach.

Specialist firm the School Outreach Company is working with senior sector figures on plans to raise £100,000 with the aim of creating a network of five regional steering groups led by construction firms.

Balfour Beatty, the UK’s biggest contractor, was the first firm to pledge support – and cash – to the venture. The firm’s UK director of sustainability, Jo Gilroy, tells CN why the firm is prioritising the initiative.

CN: Why is sector collaboration important on schools outreach?

JG: There is a really interesting paradox that happens in the construction sector. Some major projects that require construction competitors to work together, such as HS2, or the Lower Thames Crossing. When it comes to the engineering, the design, the build, the delivery of a project, we collaborate absolutely superbly. But the paradox is, as soon as you put something else in that mix that doesn’t have an engineering focus – schools outreach, low carbon, biodiversity protection – we do a lot of talking but there is not enough collaborative action. The point of this schools-outreach initiative is to say that this isn’t just about talking. We need to highlight this issue, and then we need to actually constructively take action on the ground and work together. Other industries are more proactive and creative in attracting talent.

The first step in solving a problem is recognising that you have one. As an industry, we are currently competing against everyone else for the future talent. The sector is behind. It is not that we’re about to fall behind. It’s not that we’re in the middle of the pack. We are at the back. Whether we’ve got talent that comes and works for us, or works for a competitor or works for one of our subcontractors, at some point in time, we’re all going to be working together on a particular project. So the benefit is mutual.

CN: Is this a social-value or a business-critical move?

JG: It started with corporate social responsibility (CSR). But over the past three years there has been a shift to understanding that sustainability is not a CSR tick-box exercise, it actually has to be something that is embedded into the way we do business. Why? Because if it’s not, the business will be disrupted by that unsustainable activity. And disruption means loss of profit, loss of reputation, loss of workforce.

In a few years time, that group of school leavers are going to be the workforce that you need. Previously it was very much just “let’s go and have a chat, let’s say, ‘hey, this industry is great, come and work for us, we’re really cool, we’ll pay you loads of money’”, and then they left. But there wasn’t any follow through.

CN: What do you think has prompted that change?

JG: Firstly, we now have sustainability professionals around the table at senior levels going, “Hold on, we also need to consider these things, we need to be looking not one or two years out”. Construction is not the only industry that’s like this, but we are very short term. A lot of organisations run quarter to quarter or do strategies that cover two or three years. When you’re talking about schools engagement, and addressing a skills shortage, you have got to be looking forward 20 to 25 years.

The other game changer over the past three years is the investment community, and also our customer community, who are really paying attention now. So we get some really good, meaty questions from our investors, which is excellent. And we also have clients that are setting ambitious targets and asking us to break down our figures on sustainability and CSR.

CN: What is the message that the industry needs to deliver to schoolchildren?

Firstly, organisations need to take a very long-term horizon on this. We’ve got to start, for example, with primary schools. We did a fascinating, but equally horrifying, survey in Scotland that indicated that by the age of six, young girls have already decided that they’re going to be a teacher and not an engineer. And that’s from just from the subliminal cultural messaging that they’re getting. So we need to go into schools and say, “This is a really exciting sector to be a part of and anybody could be a part of it. And we have jobs of all types.” We have jobs that are being newly created, such as the ones around AI technology and digital security. So it really is an industry for anybody.

Firms wishing to find out more about the construction sector’s school-outreach initiative should contact info@school-outreach.com.

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