Five years ago, in the UK, the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) commissioned a video Careers in Construction, which aimed to promote the many different roles available to young people in the piling and geotechnical sectors. It featured a number of to-camera interviews, with young people talking about their respective career paths and how rewarding they were finding the work they were doing.
With one of the FPS's core aims still being to encourage young people into the piling and geotechnical sectors, especially with the ever-present skills shortage, it thought it would be interesting to track down a few of those who contributed to the original video and see how each of their career paths has evolved during the intervening years.
Jack Walters was a graduate engineer when he appeared in the video and five years on, he is currently employed by Keltbray Piling as Innovations & Systems (I&S) manager. By his own admission, Walters had not heard of this particular role when he set out on his career path but is finding it extremely rewarding.
Commenting on his career path he said: "Progression through the junior ranks was relatively quick; two years as piling engineer, two years as project manager and two years in my present role as I&S manager."
Though he has hit few obstacles along the way he said that "maybe the lack of places to go once you achieve manager level stunts progression a little."
That said, Walters does feel that he made the right decision entering the construction/geotechnical sector and that, "a typical 9-5 job would not have suited me."
In as short a period as five years, Walters has seen considerable change in the sector, especially technologically noting: "One of my roles over the last four years has been on the development of the internal KIPPS software, which is designed to replace pen and paper site notes with a tablet. However, whilst technology is strong back-office, there hasn't really been a whole lot of on the ground tech improvement side."
Raising the industry's profile
Looking in at the piling sector, Walters believes that there is much to be done in raising its profile with young people. "It's [piling] unheard of - if I didn't get a placement with a piling company at university, I would never have come across the industry."
Despite its low profile, Walters is quite complimentary of the efforts it has taken to tackle issues such as mental health but thinks there is still much to be done with wellbeing. "I think the industry has realised that mental health is important, and positive action is being taken to promote conversations about mental health. Being cynical, wellbeing hasn't changed, people complain of not having enough time with family/long commutes/pay/working away from home, but nothing has been done to address this."
On inclusivity, he added: "We need to encourage people full stop… I haven't seen much encouragement. There are still too few women in the sector, which is a shame given that the workforce is getting older, with fewer graduates around each year, so there is certainly demand."
In addition to addressing the issues of diversity and wellbeing, he certainly feels there is much the sector can do to attract young people, in particular, there is a need for "clearly defined progression routes and timetables," but added that anyone considering the sector will have "a great time".
Maria Scott was heading towards a career as a beautician, before stumbling on the geotechnical sector. She still works for Cementation Skanska but travels all over the UK on projects and on some external works too. Speaking of her five years in the sector she said: "My current role is technician, which works well for me and I'm progressing exactly the way I would have hoped. I have a lot of support from my line manager and the team around me to complete extra training and extend my knowledge while learning my field to the best of my ability. I don't believe I have encountered any obstacles to career progression and I am encouraged to ask and complete anything that will benefit me long-term."
Speaking of her decision to enter the construction/geotechnical sector Scott is adamant it was the right thing to do. "I have tried other lines of work, including having a break from Cementation Skanska but I feel this is where I am meant to be."
Rapid changes in the sector
Even in five years, Scott feels much has changed in the industry: "I am now involved in the fibre optic installation on foundation piles, which gives us an easier and safer technique to monitor short-term and long-term foundations. CemOptics has been running within FDA now for four years and it's becoming a very sought-after test due to its safety and the quickness of results." Maria hopes at some point to project manage CemOptics in the future adding: "Any projects that apply and ask for CemOptics to be used on their site will be organised and set up by me, keeping the running of the fibre installs smooth and professional both internally and externally."
Asked what advice she would have given herself five-years ago, Scott answered: "Ask! I spent too long not believing I can push myself, staying in my comfort zone, but if you ask questions you quickly realise the support you have around you, which gives you the confidence to come out of your comfort zone and achieve what you want. However, if I could change one thing about the sector it would be the ability to plan better. A lot of jobs within this sector are of a ‘when needed' basis, which makes it hard to find a good work/life balance - this needs to change!
"My advice to anyone entering the sector would be to stay safe, follow your instincts and always mention something if you feel it needs to be mentioned. Every day is a challenge, but the people around you will become family if you let them," she said.
"The challenges today are more around organisation and communication, stepping up when needed and looking at ways to improve and progress the system. Five years ago, the job was more of a physical and mental challenge, which meant changing the way I went to work, what was important and recognising how labour intensive it can be. The sector does need to make itself more attractive to new starters, as seeing the benefits, the drive and difference behind what you do could really entice people to look to the sector."
On the diversity front, Scott is quite positive: "There is plenty being done, my employer, Cementation Skanska, encourages all people to become a part of the geotechnical sector, with things such as religious prayer rooms and equal opportunities for both men and women.
Like Walters, Scott has a positive view of how employee wellbeing is now dealt with. "With regards to mental health, many companies are reaching out to get people talking and there are mental health ambassadors, talk days, toolbox talks, anonymous helplines, in addition to people you can go and speak to. There is also more of a culture of encouraging people to speak up, as well as observe their colleagues."
John Martin is still with Bachy Soletanche, but his role has changed considerably. "I am now part of the health and safety team after completing my NEBOSH qualifications, which matches my career expectations perfectly. I have worked in a good variety of piling aspects over four and a half years in the field and during that time, I have had great mentors who showed me the correct and safe way of working.
"After everything I learnt, it made sense to apply my knowledge in the safety team," he said adding "right now, I have the opportunity to learn within a great safety team and as part of one of the best piling companies around."
Martin also has not encountered any obstacles to career progression: "I have had a lot of support from the people who have been mentoring me, whether they be managers, supervisors, foreman or the people on the ground. This sector is so interesting and always changing which makes it challenging. Challenging is good because it keeps you driving forward, and it is also rewarding to see jobs I have worked on fully completed and being used, such as the Mersey Gateway Bridge and Montgomery Bridge in Canary Wharf. Projects such as Thames Tideway also make you proud, because you have contributed towards something that will be a huge and welcomed change for London.
"The next step in my career will be working towards my NEBOSH Diploma or another level 6 qualification in safety. I will also be looking at auditing skills as well as keep learning from the team I am in now and just see what the future holds."
Improving health and safety
Talking of the wider piling and geotechnical sector Martin points to improvements in health and safety: "Piling rigs now use more advanced technology for operating and measuring the drilling. Ways in which you can report near misses/accidents/incidents have evolved too using technology such as apps and even gloves have become a lot better over the five years I have been in the industry."
Like Scott, Martin's advice to himself, or others entering the sector is to listen more: "Even if you think the person giving advice might not know a lot, listen anyway because it could be great advice that you miss out on.
"It is an extremely demanding sector in terms of hours worked or time away from friends and family. This might not always be the case, but speaking from when I worked in the field, that was the hardest part of the job and I would like to see this change. In fact, to someone young considering a career in the piling sector I would tell them that they would be working long hours, possibly away from family and friends and possibly in terrible weather. However, if they didn't mind these things then it's a very rewarding path to follow. I would add choose a company that wants its employees to progress along with the business."
Martin has also observed considerable change in the piling sector, in particular, "clients want more complex designs and therefore the challenge of delivering the product they want is always changing. This also brings with it challenges in safety, which to have changed slightly over the years, but there will always be a necessity to get people to want to work safely for themselves and not because they are told to."
Speaking about the industry and the need to attract more young people, Martin suggests money is key, but added: "I think if there was a way in which the industry didn't have to work five to six days a week and still maintain productivity levels then that would help.
"I also think it's good to have career paths available to new starters, so they don't end up thinking they are stuck down a tunnel and doing one job for the rest of their lives. It's always important to know you can work towards furthering yourself.
"Issues such as wellbeing are improving too, and I think the industry is doing a lot in terms of promoting the message about mental health. I don't know if the industry, as a whole, is doing as much about actually helping people improve and sustain their positive mental health though.
"Diversity is improving; when I started my apprenticeship, it was with a female piling apprentice. There was also a female apprentice starting for a different piling firm at the time. On the Tideway project there were events and big pushes for the LGBT community and it's clear on sites across Britain that all ethnicities are hired for different roles. I think, all in all, the construction sector is diverse."
Richard Lipscombe, while still in the geotechnical sector, has taken the bold move to establish his own business, running a company specialising in geotechnical and structural instrumentation and monitoring. "Since starting the business four and a half years ago, it has grown to a team of five people with an office and workshop set-up. We have a multitude of ongoing jobs in several countries and have played a part/have an ongoing role in some of the largest projects in the UK.
"We have also undertaken work/have ongoing work in Scandinavia, West Africa, Central Asia, and The Balkans. Three of my team are from my home village and would have never considered a career in the field prior to joining me," Lipscombe said.
Having started his own business, his career expectations take on a whole new perspective. "My role is so varied, and I love it. As any small business owner will tell you, they are responsible for everything, including the financial side of the business, health and safety, sales and marketing, client retention, product delivery, etc. It is stressful, hard work, and I have had to make a lot of sacrifices, but I couldn't imagine doing anything else. Regarding career expectations, I didn't really have any. I originally wanted to join the navy, but my Mum wouldn't let me, so I had just been taking every day as it came since starting university and taking every opportunity that came my way.
"I didn't anticipate ending up where I am now, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing team working alongside me and we will all continue to complete each job to the best of our abilities and see where it leads us."
In terms of career obstacles, Lipscombe has swapped these for those not unlike any person going it alone to start up a new business saying: "The main obstacle with starting your own business in the construction industry is late payment, with the larger companies viewing your invoice as an interest-free loan, delaying payment for as long as suits them. This has been the cause of many of my grey hairs and has nearly put me out of business more times than I care to think. If every invoice had been paid on time and I knew that I would be paid on time for all future work, I would likely be taking on larger jobs, employing more people (encouraging more people into the industry), and in a more comfortable position both financially and mentally."
Despite this Lipscombe has few regrets and feels he made the right decision to enter the construction sector, but notes the issue of poor payment by larger companies higher up the supply chain "would unlikely have been something I would have been aware of had I continued working for a large company."
He too has seen the sector move on especially within the instrumentation and monitoring side of things. "New technologies are continually being developed and existing technologies are continually being improved upon."
Looking to the future, Lipscombe said: "I will continue on the path I am on now and see where it leads me - it's quite difficult to quit your own business - but I won't stop learning. I have learnt from too many of my mistakes to recall them all in one paragraph and will likely learn from many more in the coming years, but if I could change one thing about the sector it would be to tackle the late payment culture where big companies effectively bully the smaller companies within the industry."
Positive about the future
Despite the many challenges of starting and running a business, Lipscombe is still very positive of the piling and geotechnical sector and encouraging of those wishing to enter it as a career: "If you love a challenging job where no two days are the same, then go for it. It will be hard work, long hours, and you will have to work outside in the cold, rain, and mud but the sense of satisfaction and achievement will make it worthwhile." He then added: "I think that the industry needs promoting more to those at school or college level. When I was at college and choosing a degree, I was completely unaware of the industry and what it entailed. By influencing people from a younger age, the industry would slowly become more attractive to new starters.
"Diversity still needs work too and I believe that more can still be done. All the larger, high-profile projects and companies within the industry seem to be very actively trying to promote diversity, which is great. However, I have yet to notice the same attitude and drive filter down to many of the other smaller and less high-profile projects that I have worked on."
The comments of these four people as they progress through their respective careers are only a snapshot, but the comments and views suggest the piling and geotechnical sector is a good place to work, with few barriers and plenty of opportunities, however, work still needs to be done to make the sector attractive to young people alongside other career options. Perhaps more could be done to tackle the perceived problem of work/life balance although given the intrinsic needs of the type of work of the geotechnical sector, if in the long-term the sector is serious about making it more attractive, then this too should be on the table for discussion and modification.
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