Construction is one of the largest sectors underpinning the UK economy but has also been one of the most exposed to the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. While short-term action is critical for the construction sector to start recovery following lockdown, longer-term strategies are vital to ensure a safe, productive, digitally enabled, low carbon construction industry, with the highly skilled and diverse workforce to truly ‘build back better’.

Changing the industry culture

The HCI Skills Gateway programme is part of the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal, funded by Scottish and UK Governments. Worth £6mn over eight years, the HCI Skills Gateway is being delivered by schools, colleges and universities in the region, with leadership and coordination from Edinburgh Napier. Originally established by Professor Sean Smith, Professor Hairstans has now taken over the running of the scheme alongside Project Manager Kirsty Connell-Skinner.

The project aims to change the culture of the construction industry and modernise the workforce by introducing updated management, leadership, and digital skills alongside practical competencies. Pathways into careers in the built environment are introduced at secondary school level, while the regions four Further Education colleges deliver strategic short courses to address future skills gaps, such as renewable energy for homes, environmental technologies and installing electric vehicle charging points.

It's crucial that we’re able to deliver clear routes into construction careers, upskill the existing workforce and build back even better.

Encouraging underrepresented groups

At a higher level, the programme targets Masters Scholarship support at qualified students from groups underrepresented in the sector, including women, BAME applicants and those with a disability. The Masters Scholarship programme commenced in September 2020, with a first cohort of 15 scholars, including 13 women, studying across a range of academic disciplines at Edinburgh Napier.

Kirsty Connell-Skinner says: “Building an inclusive construction sector needs positive action to improve diversity at senior levels. These Masters scholarships will advance and accelerate effective transformation.” Students will be tracked to monitor their progress in the industry.

Partnering students with industry

Edinburgh Napier’s Built Environment Exchange (beX) also benefits from HCI Skills Gateway funding. beX provides undergraduates, postgraduates and early career researchers with industry internships, scholarships, and employability projects. These focus on construction delivery and technology, in collaboration with universities across the USA, Canada and Europe.

Louise Rogers, a research assistant at Edinburgh Napier with a focus on sustainable construction, has benefited from her involvement with beX and HCI Skills Gateway. In her fourth year of an undergraduate civil engineering degree, an internship arranged through beX with RMP acoustic consultants took her in a new direction. She explains: “It gave me a unique insight into a structural engineer’s role and I realised I wanted to do a Masters in that field; but I couldn’t afford to self fund, so applied through HCI for a full scholarship. Thankfully my application was successful! Without that support I wholeheartedly believe I would not have had the opportunity to discover my passion for research and innovation, nor had the opportunity to start my career in this area.”

We want to have a sustainable and long-lasting impact in terms of jobs at different levels. We expect to see our Master Scholars ending up in excellent senior roles in the sector.

Kirsty Connell-Skinner

Professor Hairstans explains: “BeX is another step towards changing the culture of the industry, which can be quite adversarial; it’s an opportunity to move it towards a more modern and collaborative approach.”

The HCI Skills Gateway programme will run through to 2026. Kirsty Connell-Skinner adds: “We want to have a sustainable and long-lasting impact in terms of jobs at different levels. We expect to see our Master Scholars, for example, ending up in excellent senior roles in the sector. What we are doing now must become part of the everyday, not just a novelty.”