It’s women’s work too

Opening site doors to more females is vital to plugging the construction skills gap, reports Claire Cameron

THE construction industry continues to be plagued by a well-documented skills gap with some suggesting the shortage could get worse before it gets better.

Prime Minister Theresa May officially triggered Article 50 to start the UK’s two- year divorce from the European Union (EU) in March, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) fears the industry could lose a further 175,000 EU workers if Britain fails to retain access to the single market.

So, with an estimated 35,000 new workers needed each year, emphasis must be placed on encouraging homegrown talent into the sector, and that includes opening site doors to more women.

Female representation remains a “challenge” with women making up just 12 per cent of the UK workforce and only one per cent in manual trades, while at less than 10 per cent, the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.

It is “one of the most gender- segregated professions in the world,” says Simon Phillips, regional managing director of Esh Border Construction.

But there are positive signs emerging.

According to Ranstad, the rate at which women are embarking on careers in construction is at an all-time high, with four times as many entering the industry now than five years ago.

In fact, women are expected to make up more than a quarter (26 per cent) of the workforce by 2020 and the only major barrier standing in the way “is women’s perception that it is inaccessible to them as a career,” says Allison Tucker, global marketing manager at Mecalac Construction Equipment UK (formerly Terex GB), who adds it is essential for the industry “to show that we are inclusive, balanced and inviting”.

But with fewer female role models to help change perceptions “most young women we speak to at careers fairs, and indeed their parents, have little idea of the range of careers available in the industry,” says Julia Barrett, director of Re-Thinking at Willmott Dixon and chair of the construction firm’s gender diversity steering group.

SES Engineering Services’ project manager Katherine Frost agrees.

“The general public are still surprisingly and frustratingly unaware of the vast range of skills required in our jobs. For many people, the thought ‘construction’ still conjures up the age- old image of a man in a hi-vis, with a cigarette on the go and a power tool slung over his shoulder,” says the 28-year-old.

From a young age, the industry is viewed as “dirty, dull and dangerous,” admits Lucy Howard, associate director at Turner & Townsend, and while this is attractive to some women, “it fails to acknowledge the wealth of roles available in the construction sector,” she says.

And despite positive changes in attitudes, with businesses, schools and the Government boasting national campaigns like #NotJustForBoys, Girls into STEM and Women on the Tools to inspire more women to consider roles in the construction and engineering sectors, Tucker says publicity and communication still needs to improve.

“We’re doing the right things, but more people need to know about them,” she says.

The message is, however, reaching the leading construction firms with many increasingly employing women across all job roles – from operational, technical, trade and administrative positions.

In fact, with 657 women on its payroll, almost a quarter of Willmott Dixon’s workforce is female – almost twice the construction average of 12 per cent.

Led by group chief executive Rick Willmott, it is the only construction firm represented on the Women’s Business Council, which advises the Government on how women’s contribution to growth can be optimised.

And in line with Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, which shows the total number of female construction workers increased 9.9 per cent year- on-year to reach a 20-year high of 277,000 in December 2015, Willmott Dixon has increased its recruitment of women in the past year by three per cent – up from 19 per cent in December 2015 to 22 per cent at the end of 2016.

But Barrett believes companies may need to challenge their traditional working practices to encourage more women into the sector.

“Businesses need to do more to understand the experiences of the people working for them – both good and bad – in order to create a working environment that women want to work in, and raise awareness of the role that unconscious bias might be playing in the way that companies deal with their existing and prospective employees,” she says.

Paula Broadbent, retirement solutions director at Keepmoat, agrees, admitting that while construction is starting to recognise the significance in diversity over muscle strength, it is failing “in dispelling perceptions and inspiring women to break the mould”.

In order to understand women’s views on the subject, the house builder commissioned research that asked 16 to 25-year-olds across the UK about their perceptions of the sector and why they would/wouldn’t consider it as a career.

“Sadly just 13 per cent of females said they would consider construction as a profession,” says Broadbent.

When quizzed why this isn’t a path they would pursue, half of females said the high proportion of men in the business makes it intimidating; 46 per cent listed the limitations for women to progress as the key driver behind that decision and nearly a third thought roles are limited to onsite work.

“One of the best things to come from the research is that we provided participants with insight into the varied roles available, as well as the significant proportion of female managers and directors. Upon hearing of the opportunities, 45 per cent of females said they would now be interested in pursuing a career in construction,” says Broadbent.

Having worked hard to provide opportunities for all in an inclusive culture, Esh Border Construction is seeing “greater interest from women at all levels,” says Phillips.

“They’ve significantly enhanced the spectrum of our abilities thanks to often superior personal and organisational skills, not to mention a different and valuable viewpoint on how onsite challenges can be overcome, to name just a few benefits,” he adds.

Companies are reaching out to girls through education engagement activities, such as mentoring, explains Alex Lawrence, director at Ramboll. Offering work experience placements and internships, the engineering consultant has seen its gender balance improve over the past five years.

“In 2012, 29 per cent of women held technical positions, and we are pleased to say today we have over 33 per cent,” says Lawrence.

At Turner & Townsend, an active diversity community has been created, which includes a group specifically aimed at addressing the gender balance, explains civil engineering project manager Howard, who believes the sector “must develop new solutions to attracting staff back to the sector”.

One recent example is Thames Tideway, has adopted a ‘returnship’ programme which aims to ease the reintegration of those who have been out of the industry for a number of years. “Now in its second round, the scheme has partnered with Women Returners to focus on bringing women previously on career breaks back into the workforce,” she says.

Aided by employment and skills advisor Adeana Raper, Sheffield-based Henry Boot Construction is proud that 18 per cent of its workforce is female, while women working across a number of roles also account for 41 of the 500 staff members at Mecalac, with Tucker explaining the key to the Coventry-based firm’s success is ensuring recruitment campaigns target women.

“In our promotional activity, such as corporate videos, product brochures, HR materials and advertising creatives, we ensure female team members are profiled just as prominently as their male
counterparts. For any potential candidates watching, we believe this helps remove many of the perceived barriers of a heavily male-dominated industry,” she says.

Keen to improve the gender balance in more senior roles, Willmott Dixon has recently conducted a review of the way in which it works, asking men and women across the business how the company’s working practices and culture might be improved.

“We are building long-term relationships with schools and universities,” says Barrett and “using different channels to reach potential female candidates, from targeting sites and forums used by women, such as Workingmums.co.uk, and sharing vlogs from our female trainees on social media”.

And with a 10 per cent increase in the number of women taking on the top jobs in the sector – up from six per cent in 2005 to 16 per cent in 2016, according to Ranstad – there is proof that these targeted campaigns are working.

Manchester & Cheshire Construction recently appointed Michelle Richardson as its first female board member.

The 35-year-old, who is an ambassador for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), takes on the newly created role of operations director and, although she admits the industry has changed in terms of equal opportunities, respect and inclusion, she wants women to stop doubting themselves.

“Studies have shown that men will apply for a promotion or a new job if they think they meet 60 per cent of the requirements, whereas women will only apply if they believe they match 95 per cent of the requirements,” she says.

“We doubt ourselves and our abilities too much. I don’t think we need to start thinking like a man, but maybe we need to start approaching things from a man’s perspective. If you think you have a chance at getting that top job, then go for it.”

While the industry still trails behind in employment equality, Frost is glad to see it is bucking the trend when it comes to the gender pay gap, with ONS reporting that women’s salaries have risen six per cent each year since 2005.

At 16.3 per cent, the pay gap between male and female workers in the sector is at its lowest level on record and 1.8 per cent below the all-industry average.

And with women accounting for 58 per cent of the National Federation of Builders (NFB) workforce, chief executive Richard Beresford says: “We are quietly creating the change that we all want to see in the construction industry.”

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