I work with a lot of students in my role as VGC Group’s skills and employment advisor.
It is so important to give young people an insight into the world of construction and engineering, especially if it’s outside their regular experience. And it’s vital to talk to girls about the career opportunities open to them in our industry, whether or not they’re planning to go to university.
My school visits often take the form of Women in Construction workshops, run for girls who are choosing their GCSE subjects (year 8 students). Explaining how many different jobs they might consider can often help them to focus on their studies. It means they can begin to see an end result – it’s not just about sitting an exam; it’s about making a life for themselves.
One of the ways I get girls to think about the work they might do is to introduce a game called Guess Who? The object of the game is to match job descriptions (complete with salaries) with pictures of men and women. If the students match a man against a construction job, I’ll ask them why they didn’t pick a woman. The answers can be illuminating. On one occasion, one of the girls playing the game picked a man to do a job that came with a high salary and when I challenged her choice she said: ‘Well, that has to be a man’s job because men earn more than women’. I was shocked! But it helps me to know my work is important when I can offer a different perspective to young people, and encourage them to think again about their plans for the future.
In 2017 I made my first school visit, talking to Year 8 girls at Northwood School in the borough of Hillingdon. (As a trial run, this was made slightly easier for me by the fact that my daughter went to that school. So I already knew several of the girls in the group, who were happy to give me some useful feedback.) I am now linked with Bishop Ramsey School in Ruislip, through Team London as an Enterprise Advisor, helping them to develop their career strategy.
A recent Bishop Ramsey initiative was an Insight Day for Year 10 students. The morning was taken up with mock interviews, so I sat across from students (one at a time), who had put CVs together and applied for jobs as varied as marine biologist, engineer and nursery nurse. It was beautifully organised and the students had prepared really well. We were able to give them some advice on good interview techniques, and I learnt a lot about jobs outside construction too, so it was a real win-win situation!
In the afternoon the students were put into teams. They had to design an educational game for young children and present their results at the end of the day. It was a great way of emphasising the importance of teamwork, which is key to so many aspects of everyday life, and particularly important in our industry.
Leaving a legacy
VGC’s head office is close to Northwood and Bishop Ramsey schools. Also this year I have travelled around London and the wider area, on behalf of Inspiring the Future, an online portal organised by City Hall to help students explore the possibilities in the world of work.
Inspiring the Future sends volunteers from all areas of business to talk to students at events like career fairs or networking days. It’s a great way to connect with lots of people, explain how the industry works and talk about the range of career paths they might consider. For many students, it’s the first time they’ll have the chance to talk to someone in the construction business, and it can be an eye-opener for them, especially if they don’t think that women play much part (or can play a part) in it.
I attended a careers fair at Beaconsfield High School for year 11 and 12 students that the organiser chose to open up to include parents, which proved to be an interesting experience! Although the girls’ fathers seemed to welcome the discussion, not many of the girls’ mothers wanted their daughters to go into engineering or construction. One said: “It isn’t a very glamorous job, is it?” That encouraged me to talk about job satisfaction and about being part of an industry that leaves a legacy. I told the group that I have a family history in construction; my father is in the business and my grandfather had helped build the BBC studios in White City. Every time I drive that way, or see a news item about the building, I feel proud to think he’s left his mark.
Spreading the word about working in the construction industry
I’m happy to go wherever I’m invited to speak to young people about careers in construction. VGC’s people work on sites across the country, so it’s very important to get the word out about the work we do and the projects they could get involved with locally.
Beyond that, it’s good to encourage students who are not as academic as their classmates, and to tell them about apprenticeships that will allow them to learn as they earn, straight from school. On one occasion, I took my colleague Nirvana from the HR department at VGC, who started her career with us as an apprentice eight years ago. She is a terrific role model and it worked out really well, as she told the students her story and they identified with her immediately.
In October I’ll be at Lord’s Cricket Ground, taking part in a speed networking event for students as I did last year, for Team London. When that’s over, our schools engagement programme will have reached 2,061 students at 29 schools across six London boroughs since February this year.
I love every minute of my work with them, because no two days, no two events and no two students are the same. It is deeply satisfying to know that I’m making a difference to young people as an ambassador for our industry.
Engagement is key
My own personal experience also shows that school engagement is key for students before they pick their GCSEs. My daughter chose and started her GCSEs with a vague idea of what she wanted to do. Since then she has taken a keen interest in aviation engineering, and has decided that this is now the path she would like to pursue. If she had had this kind of experience at her school, explaining the routes she needed to take academically, her choices would be different today.