A lack of diversity combined with an out of date mindset means the industry is at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting new talent, says James Wates

James Wates BW 2017

Given that about 20% of working-age adults have a disability, why is it that in construction people with disabilities make up only about 9% of our workforce?

Construction is, now more than ever, in a war for talent, and we are losing out to other sectors that are more inclusive and attractive, especially to those talented people with disabilities.

We have to ask ourselves: why is that so? One reason is our broader failure to break out of old mindsets. We are still fishing in the same old pools for talent, but we need to be recruiting more from other sectors and learning from their experience in manufacturing, technology and innovation.

To attract people from other sectors, however, we need to create more inclusive workplaces that enable a diverse range of talented young people to apply their unique skills to work in the built environment. In short, we need a culture change.

As part of that culture change, diversity is getting some very welcome attention. Indeed, diversity of background and ways of seeing the world can make for better decision-making and work environments that can help them to break out of the status quo. Which is exactly what our sector needs right now.

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We in the construction sector need to rectify a historic lack of diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity. This lack of diversity is visually obvious the moment  you walk into many construction offices or sites.

But let’s not forget disability. The small number of individuals with disabilities in our sector is equally disappointing, if not always obvious.

To be clear, construction is not the only sector that fares poorly in this regard. According to the Office for National Statistics (data from 2019) about 82% of non-disabled people in the UK were employed in 2019, but just 53% of disabled people were in work.

Worryingly, the 2017 Labour Force Survey revealed that 58% of workers with disabilities feared that they would lose their jobs if their disability became known. So there is a good chance that, even if people with disabilities enter into employment, they may feel a need to keep their disability hidden if it is not immediately visible.

Construction is lagging behind. Fundamentally we have an image problem

Unfortunately, as I said at the start, construction is lagging behind.

Fundamentally we have an image problem. Traditionally our sector has been thought of as being for men and requiring physical work on site. That image is changing, but too slowly. We need to demonstrate that the roles in our sector are very diverse, often involving skills that you would not think of as being needed.

So how can we fix the problem?

An easy first step is to improve our communications. Feature more disabled people in the images we use in our marketing materials and websites. Include stories about people with disabilities in our internal and external communications. Celebrate their successes, and make sure people with disabilities can picture themselves in construction. 

Thanks to the pandemic, more jobs are being done from home, which is a positive development for many people with disabilities. But as we emerge from the pandemic and rethink our workplaces, we can do much more to make them truly inclusive for people with a range of disabilities.

In our own office renovation, we at Wates have looked to create a diverse range of collaborative workspaces so that everyone, whatever their abilities, can make best use of the space available.

I am pleased to see that construction sites are improving in terms of facilities for women, as part of the effort to redress gender imbalances. But improvements are needed to make construction sites disability-friendly as well – for example, by making sure that meeting rooms are on the ground floor, and providing signage in braille.

Across our whole workforce, we need to provide training and raise awareness to ensure that everyone understands how to help colleagues succeed. A good first step here is to provide basic do’s and don’ts for how to treat people with disabilities in common work situations.

We need actively to welcome people with disabilities into our businesses through our recruitment adverts, and make sure that the platforms on which we post vacancies are easily accessible to those with sensory disabilities.

Adjustments for people with disabilities might also be beneficial for everyone and make for a generally more productive work environment

Once we have welcomed disabled colleagues to the business, we need to ask how we can continue to support them, so they will stay with us and thrive. Consider that adjustments for people with disabilities might also be beneficial for everyone and make for a generally more productive work environment. 

And we can all talk to colleagues about diversity as being a fundamental driver of business performance – increasing the pool of talent, and fostering new ways of seeing and solving old problems.

And all of that has to happen within an environment of more inclusive workplaces.

We at Wates have ambitious goals for creating a more diverse workforce that better reflects the society in which we we work, and this includes tripling the number of people who declare a disability. We cannot make that kind of progress by thinking in old ways.

We have got to focus on the positive business benefits. Focus on talent, and simply make work work well  for everyone.

James Wates is chairman of Wates Group