Diversity and inclusion have come a long way in the construction industry in recent years, but there’s still plenty of work required to make it an appealing career for everyone. This has been the key takeaway of several discussions around the issue of diversity in a series of episodes on our The Changing Construction Podcast, which addresses some of the biggest challenges facing the industry.
We recently spoke with Amanda McKay, Quality Director for the Major Projects business at Balfour Beatty, who has worked in construction and engineering for 35 years. Amanda, who transitioned to a trans woman while working as head of quality for a major utilities firm, told us the industry has good intentions but is often restricted by corporate rhetoric.
“Coming out in that sector I thought would be incredibly difficult,” Amanda told us. “But I have to say diversity and equality have come a long way since my first entry into construction, which was not a place for people who were women or members of the LGBT community and certainly wasn’t a great place to work if you were from an ethnic minority.
“It is a lot better now, but it hasn’t gotten to where it needs to be as a lot of organisations believe they’ve done a lot more than they have. Some businesses see winning awards and having the odd role model as being successful in diversity and inclusion, but it needs to touch every point of the organisation. No matter who you are in an organisation you have to feel comfortable and safe to do your job and be able to be your authentic self. That’s when an organisation has embedded inclusivity across the business.”
Changing perceptions of construction
A prominent issue on the construction industry’s agenda is to raise awareness of the types of jobs available in construction. And this begins with painting a clear picture of what a career in construction looks like and the opportunities it offers to people of all backgrounds.
This is a key priority for Shelley Lawrence, a project manager for the Women Into Construction not-for-profit organization, which addresses gender imbalance and helps women to get into construction.
As Shelley explains: “Construction is a really dynamic, exciting industry that had a bad reputation for a while and women probably felt it wasn't right for them. A lot has been done to ensure inclusivity but women still only represent 14% of the industry and only 1.2% of trade roles. However, there are exciting roles like quantity surveying, engineering and project management that women often don’t realise exist.
“It’s a job that offers a wide variety of opportunities. There are site-based roles but also managerial, planning and technical roles with a progressive career path that offers job satisfaction and high earning potential.”
Diversifying construction firms
It’s also vital for organisations in the construction industry to diversify their workforces. Vicki Reynolds, who got into construction after beginning her working life as a professional actor, told us: “We need different ideas and the best way to do that is to have a bunch of different people, genders and races. There’s a perception of construction that ‘the naughty kids do it’ or ‘the kids that can’t concentrate do bricklaying.’ So we need to find a balance that construction has something for everyone. We have to attract the best talent be it male or female, and help teenagers appreciate the digital side of it and how exciting it can be.
“I always tell kids that I go and speak with at schools that if you go and work for someone like Apple or Amazon then it’ll be great but a lot of the thinking will be done by someone else. Whereas in construction we have such a long way to go that you can come in and completely change the scope of an organisation if you have the willing, intelligence and drive.”
Diversity top tips
The need for diversity extends to leadership roles, both in terms of changing perceptions of business leaders and having more diverse senior execs at organisations. As Amanda explains: “There’s a proven link between having diverse boards and organisations that are being more innovative and generating more profit. Businesses with the diversity of thought certainly seem to make better decisions.
There are plenty of opportunities for businesses to diversify their workforces and ensure they only focus on ability when it comes to hiring new employees. Our podcast guests’ top tips included:
- Job opportunity initiatives: Rather than quotas to fill a certain percentage of roles with a people of a specific gender, colour or sexuality, businesses need to focus on initiatives that encourage the best talent.
- Prioritise personality and talent: All too often, the construction industry hires new employees based on the qualifications and technical skills they have. But they need to start taking a chance on people that have the right personality to get the job done but may not necessarily have the same professional experience.
- Address the skills shortage: The construction is desperately short of skilled employees, and needs to hire 33,000 people per year to meet demands. It, therefore, needs to attract new people and show them the opportunities and career paths available.
- Fast-track courses: All too often, women take time off work for various reasons, such as having children, and choose not to go back to construction. Organizations are increasingly providing fast-track courses that help women get back to where they left off.
- Pathways into construction: Many women may not have considered construction as a viable career and went to work in other sectors. They likely now have highly valuable transferable skills but they’d have to start at a trainee or apprenticeship role with trainee wage levels. So the industry needs pathways to encourage people from other sectors into construction.
- Reverse mentoring: This sees senior leaders learn from people at different levels of the business and of different backgrounds, which can have a powerful effect on people at the top of the organization.