As the skills shortage gets worse, there can be no excuse for failing to recruit women

Richard Steer 2014

What is the biggest threat to the construction industry in the next five years?

Planning restrictions, political upheaval, economic uncertainty?

None of these is the real issue, it’s the lack of a growing, skilled, workforce and specifically the lack of women joining the industry at every level that I believe to be one of our biggest challenges.

It is a fact that at the same time as industry experts have raised fresh fears over skills shortages in 2015, Experian has recently boosted its 2015 growth prediction to around 6%. We need more staff and we need them now.

Updated forecasts show enhanced expectations of greater infrastructure activity. This is illustrative of extra pressure on staff levels and comes after the government released the latest version of its construction pipeline showing a 10% growth in the value of forthcoming government projects.

At the same time we have industry experts saying the sector is already struggling to find enough recruits to carry out the work. Consultant’s JLL property experts said in a research paper there was “a deep seated lack of skills and resource throughout the construction industry” spanning “all sectors and disciplines”. It said in 2015 “contractors with established and loyal supply chains will reinforce their market position, but the rest will struggle” with the lack of labour holding back development.

So why when women make up just under half the UK workforce as a whole, do so few enter the built environment at every level?

Some argue the answer is quotas and positive discrimination. Personally I am not keen on this approach which can create a sense of preferment amongst applicants, possible downgrading of skills to meet targets and a sense of resentment amongst work colleagues

For instance whilst the number of female architecture students has grown at around 44% in 2013, we can’t seem to retain them in the profession. Just 34% officially qualified chartered architects are women. And the drop-off continues into senior levels: 22% of senior architects are women, 19% of associates and just 12% partners or shareholder director.

Moving from the back office to the site, recent official figures show that the proportion of women working in construction has risen to 13.4% in 2014 from 11.7% in 1999. However only 1.3% of manual construction workers are female, little changed from 1.2% in 1999. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has highlighted harassment and bullying of women in the industry as one reason for the lack of gender balance.

It was very gratifying therefore to see Nick Boles, the skills and equalities minister, appoint five women and three men as new trustees of the Construction Industry Training Board, making it the first non-departmental public body to have a female-majority board.

Everyone on the board is new apart from the chair, James Wates, who hailed the appointment of a smaller, industry-led board. Only one woman sat on the previous 16-member board.

Boles said he hoped that this “encourages more women to consider a career in construction”.

The new trustees include Maureen Douglas, HR director at Forster Group; Karen Jones, HR director at Redrow; Maria Pilfold, HR consultant and a former director of Taylor Wimpey; Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Science Council; and Frances Wadsworth, the head of Croydon college.

It doesn’t just stop there either. Last month Thames Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell was reported as having made a pledge to try and create gender parity and says he wants half his workforce made up of women - the current workforce is just under a third female. He accepts that as his project moves from being office based to its construction phase he may well go backwards instead of forwards in terms of the number of female operatives on site but he is determined to try and do something positive.

He quotes figures that make interesting reading with only 21% of 869 applicants for jobs at Thames Tidesway last year being female. There will be over 4000 direct jobs and 5000 indirect jobs on the project and Mr Mitchell admits he will have his work cut out to attract more women employees. However he has agreed to advertise more widely and work with Universities to try and source more female applicants.

Some argue the answer is quotas and positive discrimination. Personally I am not keen on this approach which can create a sense of preferment amongst applicants, possible downgrading of skills to meet targets and a sense of resentment amongst work colleagues. One thing is certain however that more women are in work than ever before in the UK. Official figures show a record-breaking 14 million now have jobs. The female employment rate reached 67.2% last year, the highest since the Office for National Statistics’ records began. The construction industry will be in competition with the rest of UK PLC to become attractive as an occupation at any level.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide