From education to employment

UK’s first virtual construction site set to help students build people management skills

The macho world of construction isn’t the most obvious place to look for a new approach to people skills training. Yet ‘soft skills’ such as the ability to communicate clearly and inspire a team are as critical to the success of any building project as technical expertise.

A new construction training centre – the ACT-UK Simulation Centre – set to open at the Coventry University Technology Park in September 2009 with the backing of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), leading construction companies and Coventry University, will help both construction students and industry professionals develop their people management skills and fulfil their potential through a pioneering combination of virtual reality computer techniques and the use of professional actors.

The centre is the first of its kind in the UK and has been developed by the team which opened the world’s first construction virtual reality training centre – the BMSC (Building Management Simulation Centre) at Leeuwarden in the Netherlands ten years ago. The Leeuwarden centre has transformed the Dutch construction industry’s approach to training and is used by more than 360 Dutch firms because of the programme’s success in identifying and developing trainees’ talents.

UK first

The centre offers a unique approach to helping construction managers and students develop people skills as well as helping their individual talents to flourish. "Managing a construction project is hugely challenging," says ACT-UK managing director Michiel Schrijver.

"Alongside technical knowledge of the build process, site managers need excellent people skills in order to manage subcontractors and other site staff. In addition, they have to work with clients, other consultants who might be involved in the project as well as handling relationships with residents and the local community. Having the ability to interact effectively with all these different people is essential to completing a project on time and within budget. Expecting construction students to have these skills in place at the start of their careers is a tall order and the nature of the industry means it can be hard for them to gain that experience on site, where mistakes can be both costly and dangerous."

Growing need for virtual training

The main users of the new ACT-UK Simulation Centre will be construction companies but the centre is also set to be used by university and further education college students.

The training facility will recreate, in precise detail, an actual construction site using virtual reality. The three-dimensional computer simulation of the construction project is projected on to a 12-metre panoramic screen in the Simulation Centre. Trainees use a control stick to ‘walk round’ the site and view the construction work in close-up, down to individual nuts and bolts. Trainees work in fully-equipped site cabins of the kind found on any building site. They are then presented with challenging site management scenarios – based on real-life situations – with site personnel, colleagues, and members of the public played by professional actors. Supervisors observe their behaviour via cameras and then work with trainees to give feedback and pinpoint areas for development.

As well as helping fund the project, Coventry University is working directly with ACT-UK on the development of the centre’s study programmes. Coventry University vice-chancellor Madeleine Atkins says: “There is a growing need for this type of training in the UK. The Simulation Centre engages directly with industry – designing bespoke courses for construction companies. This ongoing development will feed through to our courses, ensuring our students are constantly at the forefront of management training and better prepared for the world of work."

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