I’m going to make the assumption that you, dear reader, are passionate about tackling the skills shortage in our beloved sector. Whether that’s something you do as an individual, or something that your organisation does, we all know its a major issue. And its a guaranteed topic at every industry conference, expo, networking event, panel and seminar.
Signs of progress are beginning to bud, but there is still much more to do. Equally, there is much of the old and ineffective that needs to be scrapped fast. In recent years, education has also become much more structured and regulated in its approach to careers interventions. Careers guidance now forms part of a school’s OFSTED report, and education is required to show progress against the eight Gatsby benchmarks (more of this later).
But “raising awareness” doesn’t work. How do I know? Let’s face it: if doing awareness raising talks in schools a couple of times a year was enough, we wouldn’t have a skills shortage, would we?
Behaviour change is my specialist field, and I know that there are clear routes to success. And my concern is that ‘raising awareness’ is potentially much worse than simply being ineffective.
We want to solve the skills shortage. But the metric we’re giving ourselves is to ‘raise awareness’. One thing does not equal the other. Unless we set out the whole specific pathway, from the informational classroom talk right through to starting in a job, we’re attempting to measure something that we’re not explicitly influencing.
The problem with these awareness-raising tactics and campaigns is that they are ends in themselves and they measure our efforts, not our outcomes. Our audience can’t fail because there’s nothing for them to actually fail at. Generally speaking, even the most well-rehearsed schools engagement has few realistic expectations of outcomes.
Raising awareness is not equivalent to solving a problem. We’re getting a healthy dose of the “warm fuzzies” when we visit schools that make us believe somehow we’ve helped, without actually helping.
The only metric by which a campaign’s success should be measured is in how many people were taken through the complete process and spurred into meaningful action. In this sense, awareness raising is never about us, it’s always about the audience.
Misperceptions of the industry are frequently discussed in our outreach effort, but many young people have very few perceptions of us at all, so instead we’re simply painting them an unattractive picture.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Awareness-raising done in the wrong way can actually backfire, encouraging the negative activities in question. Far from being progressive, or even benign in nature, there are many negative aspects to awareness-raising. What that means is that awareness-raising encourages the behaviours we don’t want, not just in the short term, but the longer term too.
Really, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to simply raise awareness. We want the outcomes and actions that stem from awareness raising. We want interest, we want enthusiasm, we want action. Those don’t come from more education. They come from engagement, and relationships, and effort, and removing barriers.
You know this in your own company – you don’t just shout your company’s services into a void and hope for the best. You offer a website and you have a presence on social media, you create printed collateral that provides more details about your skills and experience. You attend events. Maybe you host some, too. You submit tenders. You set standards and expectations for your supply chain. You collect referrals and testimonials. You talk to prospects and customers. If you’re really smart at marketing, you also provide some add-on products and services to augment your main offer. You partner with non-competing businesses to improve your offer. You co-create solutions with your target audience.
And that’s the level of effort that’s required if we’re ever going to solve the skills shortage. Nothing less.
Based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that a course of action is right for them isn’t to tell people what they should do—it’s to tell them what other people actually do. Its a phenomenon known as social proof.
Tripping over our own enthusiasm
And this exact phenomenon has been holding construction back for decades, because we ARE telling them what other people actually do. We’re telling them that there’s an unsolvable skills shortage, that women are rare in construction, and young people like them don’t want to work in the construction industry. So that’s the behaviour they’re adopting. They’re doing exactly the same as all their peers: ignoring construction and going to work in other sectors. This is known as the ‘law of unintended consequences’, and we’ve been tripping ourselves up with it for years.
In behaviour change, decision making follows these stages: 1) Pre-contemplative – 2) Contemplative – 3) Preparation – 4) Action – 5) Maintenance. There’s more about this at beskillsinschools.co.uk, but suffice it to say that ‘awareness raising’ simply moves someone from step one to step two. At best. There’s still a long way for them to go on their careers journey.
By way of expanding on that possible journey through the steps, let’s imagine that school engagement (always linked directly to curriculum subjects) is step one. Self-exploration, discussion, classroom learning and careers guidance is step two. Work experience placements might count as step three. Further education through traditional routes, apprenticeships or T-levels are step four. And step five is employment
People make decisions on emotion, not fact. All human behaviour, at its root, is driven by the need to avoid pain and the desire to gain pleasure.
Even when we do something that appears to be painful, we do it because we associate some comfort or pleasure with the action. For young people, this level of comfort might be appeasing a parent or careers advisor. You, as a ‘seller’ of the concept of careers in construction, are responsible for knowledge and information about every step in that journey you want the ‘buyer’ to make. Just like the most effective business strategies, success comes from committing to learning and educating yourself so you can help others.
However, I don’t mean that you have to provide all the steps yourself. This would be a great time to roll out that tricky c-word; Collaboration! Who in your network offers an appropriate next step (mentoring, workshops, careers aptitude tests, work experience, site visits, or whatever it should be)? And if you don’t know, how on earth could you expect schools to know? Pick up the phone, send an email, get out there and talk to people. Find out
12 Steps to creating choice frameworks (because we don’t do empty theorising at BESS.
1. Talk to your local Enterprise Coordinators
There is a huge amount of activity in the careers space, and by trying to go it alone you effectively make competitors of every other organisation and channel, as we’re all trying to reach the same schools, teachers and students. Enterprise Coordinators are the local representatives of the Careers & Enterprise Company, and they have direct links into all the schools and colleges in your LEP region through the Enterprise Advisor Network. They can also give you an sense of the careers landscape in your area. You can find the details of your nearest Enterprise Coordinator by visiting careersandenterprise.co.uk/enterprise-adviser-network and putting in your postcode.
2. Research the school
Schools are not one homogeneous group – they have different structures, objectives and ambitions, and you need to pitch yourself to the school that best fits your organisational culture and opportunities. To understand any challenges they’re facing and the ambitions they have for their students, you can learn more about them by visiting compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk
3. Prep your offer
What makes you different from other businesses who do what you do? What insights and experiences can you offer students? If you don’t already have some great content, this is the time to get creative. You can learn more about linking construction careers to curriculum over at the BESS website. As part of the new National Careers Strategy, schools are required to demonstrate progress against all of the eight Gatsby Benchmarks – which ones can you help them with? Find out more at gatsby.org.uk
4. Where are you on social media?
Like any prospect, when you put the phone down from a call with a teacher, they will go online to find out more about you. Is your voice being heard? Does it reinforce the values you just told them about? Who is their point of contact in your organisation? Can they see examples of previous schools engagement you’ve delivered? Make sure someone in your company has responsibility for coordinating your online messages. Help yourself to a copy of the BESS How To… Guide for ideas and inspiration about school-friendly digital content from beskillsinschools.co.uk
5. What do you want to achieve from your schools engagement?
How much time and resource are you prepared to commit to it? Of course, you might have commercial ambitions that rely on being able to evidence good CSR and social value, but putting clear objectives and resources to your schools engagement gives your whole team a tangible target. Always make sure your action (whether that’s a site tour, an assembly, a careers fair, a school challenge, or anything else) has a clear and stated next step (or two. Or three) Once somebody has done this thing, what should they do next? What’s the call to action? How are you measuring the % of your audience who take those next steps? How are you improving your conversion rate? Check your schools engagement score at beskillsinschools.co.uk
6. Is your offer a succinct and fact-based statement?
It should be
7. Are your people ready to go, or do you need to spend some time on training?
This isn’t the time to wing it – mismatched, uninspiring, complicated presentations waste everyone’s time. Students in compulsory education a re a very discerning audience; they are used to someone standing up and imparting information, all day, everyday. They have high standards! Poor preparation means the pupils won’t engage and you won’t be invited back. Make sure your key people are trained on presenting to young audiences, and that your materials are all consistent and branded. Brush up on your storytelling skills with a one day workshop through CITB or BESS
8. Which pupils are you aiming your message at?
Gifted and talented? Risk of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)? Smashing those preconceptions of construction with the girls? Educating careers leads and teachers? One message does not fit all audiences. Check with the school if you’re unsure, and tailor your messages appropriately. Perhaps you are keen to commit your support to apprentices who are already on the on-ramp into the industry by offering activities and learning that contribute to their 20% off-the-job requirement. Details about the requirements of apprenticeships can be found at gov.uk
9. Give your message structure
Some key questions to ask yourself as you develop your message include: What’s your pitch; what’s your supporting evidence; where do you fit into the overall construction story; what soundbites of information do you want students to take away; what’s the next step for pupils who are interested in talking to you; where can can students and teachers get hold of more information? This will inevitably include a pitch for your own organisation, but remember to add in details for steps two, three and four of the decision making process, before you leap straight to five!
10. Be clear on the post-16 options
What do students need to study to do what you do? Where can they find those courses? How long do they take? How much do they cost? Post-16 options are developing at a phenomenal pace, and pupils can chose subject-based courses (for example, A-levels or Baccalaureate), vocational courses (i.e. BTEC), and in-work training (such as apprenticeships or traineeships). As part of the National Careers Strategy, there is an immediate requirement for every school to ensure that they provide an opportunity for a range of education and training providers to access all pupils in years 8 – 13 for the purpose of informing them about approved technical education qualifications or apprenticeships
11. How best to present your message
Don’t get too prescriptive about delivering your message as an assembly talk. Think about other formats that could work including one-to-one careers talks, CV workshops, mock interviews, careers fairs, digital content, workplace visits, work experience, activity-based workshops, classroom learning, competitions, and support for teachers with careers guidance
12. Expect the unexpected
Some of the questions you might be asked by students include “How much do you earn?”, “What hours do you work?”, “Do you enjoy your job?”, “What job would you choose if you didn’t do this one?”, or “What are some of the things you don’t like about your job?” Don’t expect to fob them off with vague answers – know what each of your team is going to say in reply, making sure it’s honest and your team are comfortable saying it
If you want more, you can watch ’99 Low-cost Ideas for Schools Engagement’ on the Built Environment Skills in Schools YouTube channel
Kathryn Lennon-Johnson 07527 459261
Kathryn Lennon-Johnson is an Entrepreneur, Author, TEDx Speaker, Teacher and Consultant with over 18 years of experience in behaviour change.
The built environment matters; it has consequences. In order to address the construction skills shortage while attracting the next generation into construction, Kathryn recognised the need to promote change and create places and spaces that benefit us all. She is the Founder of Built Environment Skills in Schools, and author of courses and books for employers looking to deliver effective outreach and engagement.