Business must break down the wall

From Jericho to Berlin, Belfast to Israel, the construction and destruction of walls has always carried heavy political symbolism.

The recent spat between Donald Trump and the Pope, on the subject of the proposed wall to separate Mexico and the United States, illustrates this perfectly. 

It’s not every day that religious and political leaders lock horns on the right and wrongs of construction projects, but then we seem to be living in strange times.

I only say this as earlier this month I attended a ceremony held at the Houses of Parliament, a ceremony where a wall was built, right at the foot of Big Ben.

Hosted by Derby North MP Amanda Solloway, and attended by the likes of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Housing Minister Brandon Lewis, this was a pretty major event that made for a superb photo opportunity.

In this case, the symbolism of the wall was to bring attention to the skills shortage in construction, and most particularly the art of bricklaying.

The event had a real Derbyshire feel and it was great to see another local-born innovation play out at the heart of our democracy.

Its main instigator was the effervescent Ian Hodgkinson, owner of Hodgkinson Builders who, having created a successful Brickwork Academy with Derby College, was using the occasion to announce its expansion into a National Construction Academy.  

Delivered in partnership with the dynamic Derby-based training provider 3aaa, the National Construction Academy will be rolled out across the UK and aims to attract and train greater numbers of young people into this skilled, and very well paid, employment. 

Ian literally wears his passion on his sleeve – replete in his famous ‘brick suit’, his message is simple and serious, there is a shortage of talent to build the UK.

My take-out was his comment that the annual target to build 250,000 houses in the UK is unachievable as there are only 250,000 bricklayers.  

The UK seems to go around in circles when it comes to education and skill shortages.

Government after government love setting targets and launching initiatives, they are brilliant at talking the talk, but rarely walk the walk.

By all accounts, we are not only short of bricklayers but also doctors, engineers, teachers, care workers and a myriad of roles and professions.

As a country we spend a fortune on education and training, yet we still face the disconnect between supply and demand in the labour market.

I don’t want to depress you, but the challenge does seem to be pretty fundamental.

In educational terms the UK has slipped down the OECD tables, where we now stand 20th out of 24 for Maths and Science. Astonishingly, we rank 22nd out of 24 for English.

Only half of our school leavers achieve 5 GCSEs including Maths and English, that’s after 11 years of full-time education.

The world of business has a stark choice – to stand back and criticise the whole shooting match or get involved and support change.

In Derby, increasing numbers are choosing to get involved - from Ian and his Academies to the hundreds who sit as governors, act as mentors or provide valuable work experience.

All staff at Marketing Derby have committed to volunteering time to support Enterprise for Education (E4E), the activity co-ordinated by Derby City Council and delivered by business. 

E4E provides CV workshops, mentoring and mock interviews within schools and I recently did my first mock interview stint at Murray Park. 

I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the students but also witnessed first hand the need to help identify their talent beyond academic grades and to open their horizons to opportunities – raising aspiration and challenging comfort zones.

Just as the Hodgkinson wall was demolished at the end of the Parliament event, so must the wall between business and education, and it’s time for business to get involved.