According to Claire Cameron, increasing the number of females on construction sites is critical to closing the skills gap.
THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY is still besieged by a well-documented skills shortage, with some predicting that the situation will worsen before it improves.
Prime Minister Theresa May officially triggered Article 50 in March to begin the UK’s two-year divorce from the European Union (EU), and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) fears the industry will lose another 175,000 EU workers if Britain does not retain access to the single market.
With an estimated 35,000 new workers needed each year, the emphasis must be on encouraging homegrown talent into the sector, which includes opening more site doors to women.
Female representation remains a “challenge,” with women accounting for only 12% of the UK workforce and 1% in manual trades, while the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%.
According to Simon Phillips, regional managing director of Esh Border Construction, it is “one of the most gender-segregated professions in the world.”
However, there are some encouraging signs.
According to Ranstad, the number of women entering the construction industry is at an all-time high, with four times as many entering as five years ago.
In fact, women are expected to account for more than a quarter (26%) of the workforce by 2020, with the only major impediment being “women’s perception that it is inaccessible to them as a career,” according to Allison Tucker, global marketing manager at Mecalac Construction Equipment UK (formerly Terex GB), who adds that the industry must “show that we are inclusive, balanced, and inviting.”
However, with fewer female role models to influence 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, Willmott Dixon’s director of Re-Thinking and chair of the construction firm’s gender diversity steering group.
Katherine Frost, project manager at SES Engineering Services, agrees.
“The general public continues to be surprisingly and frustratingly unaware of the wide range of skills required in our jobs.” “For many people, the word ‘construction’ conjures up an image of a man in a hi-vis, smoking a cigarette and carrying a power tool over his shoulder,” says the 28-year-old.
According to Lucy Howard, associate director at Turner & Townsend, the industry is viewed as “dirty, dull, and dangerous” from a young age, and while this may appeal to some women, it “fails to acknowledge the wealth of roles available in the construction sector.”
Despite positive changes in attitudes, with businesses, schools, and the government touting national campaigns like #NotJustForBoys, Girls into STEM, and Women on the Tools to encourage more women to consider careers in construction and engineering, Tucker says publicity and communication still need to improve.
“We’re doing the right things,” she says, “but more people need to know about them.”
The message is reaching the top construction firms, with many increasingly hiring women in all job roles, including operational, technical, trade, and administrative positions.
In fact, with 657 women on its payroll, Willmott Dixon employs nearly a quarter of its workforce – nearly twice the construction industry average of 12%.
It is the only construction firm represented on the Women’s Business Council, which advises the Government on how to maximise women’s contribution to growth. It is led by group chief executive Rick Willmott.
And, in line with data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the total number of female construction workers increased 9.9% year on year to a 20-year high of 277,000 in December 2015, Willmott Dixon has increased its recruitment of women by 3% in the last year, rising from 19% in December 2015 to 22% at the end of 2016.
However, Barrett believes that companies may need to challenge their traditional working practises in order to attract more women to the sector.
“Businesses must do more to understand the experiences of their employees – both good and bad – in order to create a working environment that women want to work in, and to raise awareness of the role that unconscious bias may play in the way that companies deal with their existing and prospective employees,” she says.
According to Paula Broadbent, retirement solutions director at Keepmoat, while construction is beginning to recognise the importance of diversity over muscle strength, it is failing “in dispelling perceptions and inspiring women to break the mould.”
To better understand women’s perspectives on the subject, the house builder commissioned research in which 16 to 25-year-olds from across the UK were asked about their perceptions of the sector and why they would/wouldn’t consider it as a career.
“Unfortunately, only 13% of females said they would consider a career in construction,” Broadbent says.
When asked why they wouldn’t pursue this path, half of females said the high proportion of men in the business makes it intimidating; 46% cited the limitations for women to advance as a key driver; and nearly a third believed roles are limited to onsite work.
“One of the most valuable outcomes of the research was that we gave participants insight into the various roles available, as well as the significant proportion of female managers and directors.” “Fourty-five percent of females said they would now be interested in pursuing a career in construction after hearing about the opportunities,” says Broadbent.
Esh Border Construction is seeing “greater interest from women at all levels,” according to Phillips, after working hard to provide opportunities for all in an inclusive culture.
“They’ve significantly enhanced the spectrum of our abilities due to often superior personal and organisational skills, not to mention a different and valuable perspective on how onsite challenges can be overcome,” he adds.
According to Alex Lawrence, director at Ramboll, companies are reaching out to girls through education engagement activities such as mentoring. The engineering consultant has improved its gender balance over the last five years by providing work experience placements and internships.
“In 2012, 29% of women held technical positions, and we are pleased to say that today we have more than 33%,” Lawrence says.
According to civil engineering project manager Howard, who believes the sector “must develop new solutions to attracting staff back to the sector,” an active diversity community has been created at Turner & Townsend, which includes a group specifically aimed at addressing the gender balance.
Thames Tideway, for example, has implemented a’returnship’ programme to facilitate the reintegration of those who have been out of the industry for a number of years. “Now in its second round,” she says, “the scheme has partnered with Women Returners to focus on bringing women who have previously taken career breaks back into the workforce.”
Sheffield-based Henry Boot Construction, aided by employment and skills advisor Adeana Raper, is proud that 18% of its workforce is female, while women working across a variety of roles account for 41 of Mecalac’s 500 staff members, with Tucker explaining that the key to the Coventry-based firm’s success is ensuring recruitment campaigns target women.
“We ensure that female team members are profiled just as prominently as their male counterparts in our promotional activity, such as corporate videos, product brochures, HR materials, and advertising creatives.” “We believe this helps remove many of the perceived barriers of a heavily male-dominated industry for any potential candidates watching,” she says.
Willmott Dixon recently conducted a review of its working practises, asking men and women across the business how the company’s working practises and culture could be improved in order to improve the gender balance in more senior roles.
“We are building long-term relationships with schools and universities,” Barrett says, and “we are using various channels to reach potential female candidates, such as targeting sites and forums used by women, such as Workingmums.co.uk, and sharing vlogs from our female trainees on social media.”
And, according to Ranstad, a 10% increase in the number of women in top jobs in the sector – up from 6% in 2005 to 16% in 2016 – demonstrates that these targeted campaigns are effective.
Michelle Richardson was recently appointed as Manchester & Cheshire Construction’s first female board member.
The 35-year-old, an ambassador for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), takes on the newly created role of operations director, and while she acknowledges that the industry has changed in terms of equal opportunities, respect, and inclusion, she wants women to stop doubting themselves.
“Studies show that men will apply for a promotion or a new job if they believe they meet 60% of the requirements, whereas women will only apply if they believe they meet 95% of the requirements,” she says.
“We have a lot of doubts about ourselves and our abilities.” I don’t believe we need to start thinking like men, but we might need to start approaching things from a man’s point of view. If you believe you have a good chance of getting that top job, go for it.”
While the industry still lags behind in terms of employment equality, Frost is encouraged to see that it is bucking the trend in terms of the gender pay gap, with the ONS reporting that women’s salaries have increased by 6% per year since 2005.
The pay gap between male and female workers in the sector is at its lowest point on record, at 16.3 percent, and is 1.8 percent lower than the all-industry average.
With women accounting for 58% of the workforce at the National Federation of Builders (NFB), chief executive Richard Beresford says, “We are quietly creating the change that we all want to see in the construction industry.”