CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

Why industry and academic collaboration is vital to the success of the construction sector

How academic institutions and industry collaborate will determine the success of the construction industry and whether our graduates learn the right competencies to be job-ready

Author: Danielle Lester

14 April 2020

Attending industry and academic conferences over the last couple of years has left me with a number of questions concerning the future of our profession. The common thread at these conferences is that industry is looking to education to provide the answers to society's talent shortage, and academia is looking to industry for greater guidance on their  talent requirements.

The challenging business landscape and uncertainty ahead is making most industry leaders sit up, take note and adapt by being proactive and trying to future-proof their businesses. But what are we doing in education to complement and drive this need for change? Are we providing students and graduates with enough exposure to the basic educational requirements to succeed in the built environment professions, particularly in the technical discipline of construction management?

A lost art

One of the requisite skills required to have a successful career in the built environment is measurement. Measurement can mean many things whether it is demonstrating an understanding of a specific standard method of measurement, estimation using first principles or achieving significant milestones and performance indicators of a project using earned value management, application of the core principles of measurement is essential.

Measurement when done correctly, will measure exactly what needs to be measured with the precision and rigour required.

That being said, academic programmes are increasingly moving away from the more traditional methods of teaching measurement in favour of using software, often designed for use by experienced estimators and quantity surveyors.

While these software packages have augmented much of the project delivery process, using the software to teach the fundamental concepts of measurement removes the learner's exposure to the troublesome features of a concept. In other words, students are not going through the motion of doing a task that appears counterintuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent. Although basic measurement skills may be required universally within our education system, the application of measurement in the context of project delivery is a key skill that defines the profession.

The action of measurement may seem a simple task, but the methodology is often ignored. We need to encourage students to ask why we measure an item in a specific way; what the consequences are of measuring it differently and why and how the client or customer measures the item.

"The action of measurement may seem a simple task, but the methodology is often ignored"

Standards can act as a way to define a methodology, providing comparability and consistency across processes. The launch of the second edition of ICMS, for example, has shown that globalisation needs us to adopt a more inclusive view on how each stakeholder in a project measures their interest and performance. To this end, there may be more that software programmes can do in order to support learning of measurement and scheduling.

Technical knowledge

The heavy focus on technical knowledge in construction education can often distract students from a deeper level of understanding and hinder critical thinking. In a results-driven society particularly in this technological age students and graduates can often mistake a positive result for success without even questioning let alone challenging quantities values feasibility or performance.

There are other aspects of current or recent graduates' experience in higher education outside of the curriculum that could possibly be impacting an academic's ability to enhance critical thinking in the classroom. Built environment programmes are often seen as cash cows for educational institutions with high enrolment globally. However, the technical aspects of the core body of knowledge that define our profession demand specific entry standards, or foundation level knowledge, before being accepted on to a course or programme.

Student-teacher evaluations have now become a key measure in the success of an educational programme. Programmes and courses are being designed and measured with customer satisfaction in mind, and the assessment of core competencies and concepts can often be diluted in an attempt to side-step the so-called troublesome features. This may appear to be pointing a finger of blame at the educators, but if the reward structure for academia is based around an inaccurate measure of learning outcomes  and considers student satisfaction the priority  then are they really at fault?

The skills shortage

In today's knowledge economy, the development of decision-making critical thinking, negotiation and influencing skills are vital. Education must address skills and knowledge with equal measure. A familiar complaint from the industry is that graduates are arriving at their organisations with outstanding technical knowledge, but few understand how to apply that knowledge in the context of real-world problems, let alone identify the problem in the first place.

This is amplified by the exponential growth of master's programmes in the built environment. It is reasonable to expect a postgraduate to have a deeper level of understanding of a subject than an undergraduate. If we consider the original definition of a bachelor, from the Latin baccalaureus meaning squire or apprentice; and master from the Latin magister meaning teacher, the difference is clear. But can the same be said about the course content of our educational programmes?

The knowledge required to form the foundation of a master's level degree can often lead to an increased volume of study, which could be considered an issue of quantity over quality. Many in the construction industry and academia, however, would agree that an increased volume of work is representative of the workload a graduate with a master's level degree should expect, particularly in construction management, and is an appropriate method to fast-track a career.

Whether this approach also increases your ability to think critically and make quality management decisions is debatable.

Recommendations

For education to make the necessary changes to service our industry, we need to achieve greater collaboration but these collaborations must be equitable.

There are many outstanding construction research centres linked to academic institutions. These research centres are not just conducting research but are looking for collaboration with the industry to help improve practice across the built environment. To achieve this, the industry needs to understand the value of academic direction in research, and recognise that if adequate change is made, then collaboration could transform the industry.

By collaborating with the industry, education could provide real-life experiences for students and graduates. This would give them greater purpose and autonomy during their education which is key to developing critical thinking and decision-making skills. With more inclusive assessment we may begin to see graduates become not only more job-ready, but possibly even job-transforming, as they enter the most dynamic and rewarding industry there is.

Danielle Lester is senior teaching fellow – construction management and quantity surveying at Bond University Australia  dlester@bond.edu.au

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