Creating youth-friendly opportunities in the construction sector

With exam results unveiled this week, Martin O’Donnell from the Akela Group describes his own industry journey and encourages young people to consider building a dream career in the construction sector.

Martin O’Donnell is health and safety advisor at Akela Group.

This week, exam results have been unveiled in Scotland after over a year of disruption to education in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. For those considering their career options, construction might not be the obvious choice. Historically the sector painted a low-paid, low- skilled picture.  However, this is a sector that is thriving, innovating, highly rewarding and driving change. It is possible to build your dream career in the construction sector and there are a wide range of career paths available to young people, irrespective of their exam results. 

I did not follow a straight, predictable, or traditional path into the sector. I left school at 16 and worked in hospitality before joining the construction sector, which led to me taking up a post at the Akela Group, a multi-disciplinary construction services and civil engineering company. 

After seven years of working as a civil engineering groundworker, I was offered training to help me progress to the next phase of my career, and I seized the opportunity to become the Health and Safety Advisor at Akela Group. Their guidance and support was crucial in helping me advance my career. It is fitting that I am now able to help young people on their career journey. 

The Akela Group has been recruiting, training and retaining apprentices since its inception. Most recently, we have also partnered with the charity Action for Children on an Apprenticeship Programme that is designed to help young people secure and sustain employment by giving them industry recognised training and certification. 

This year, Akela Group has welcomed 22 apprentices in total. Apprentices receive a mix of on the job and classroom training, and by the end of their two or three year apprenticeship they receive a SVQ Level 2 in Construction and Civil Engineering Operations. Our aim is to provide ongoing support and encouragement, and to equip them with the essential tools and experience that they need to develop and realise a successful career in the sector. The remarkable success rate of these young people who are progressing into opportunities within the Akela Group is testament to the commitment of the site managers and teams and their recognition of what young people can bring to the sector. These success stories make a solid case for apprenticeship schemes in their own right, but they are not just nice to have. 

In reality, many of these schemes have emerged to address a key challenge that the construction industry is facing right now - the chronic shortage of skills. At present, the entire industry suffers from an image problem and construction based roles - particularly in civil engineering - are not seen as desirable career paths for young people. There is an urgent need to challenge traditional perceptions of construction roles as low-skilled and to showcase the diversity and richness of career paths that the sector has to offer - from the university graduate level roles like quantity surveying, to the site-based civil engineering roles which are labour intensive and place a great deal of importance on work ethic and attitude. 

If the sector is to stand any chance of plugging the skills gap, it is imperative that these perceptions are challenged, not least in classrooms - but also, that the sector itself remains committed to investing in young people and providing opportunities to realise a rewarding career in this thriving industry. Schemes like the Apprenticeship Programme offered by the Akela Group will go some way towards unlocking opportunities for young people and addressing the skills gap. More importantly, they also help to ensure that we have a solid pipeline of talent that will be equipped to deal with the challenges of modernising the construction sector and creating new opportunities in the future. 

Martin O’Donnell is health and safety advisor at Akela Group.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.