Heard the one about the new woman on site? No, didn't think so – there are almost none. So why does the press think recruiting them is such a giggle?
When the question of women in the construction industry surfaced in the House of Commons recently, there were two predictable sets of media reactions. The parliamentary sketchwriters in the broadsheets found easy fodder for their supercilious witticisms and the tabloids contributed a few ho-ho, what-a-laugh headlines. Well, it would have been optimistic to expect that there might be any serious coverage of the actual issue. After all, it merely involves the exclusion of 50% of the British population from an industry which, aided and abetted by its own prejudices, is creaking at the seams because of skills and labour shortages.

At present, fewer than one in a hundred of the tradespeople working on building sites is female. The figure has fallen in the past decade, which doesn't say a lot for the progress being made towards dismantling stereotypes. Neither does it say much for construction's inclusivist vision of its own future.

Employers should be looking closely at how they can attract women into jobs on and off site. Even if the overall numbers are small, there are plenty of good role models around – as I found at the recent Women in Construction conference held at the DTI. They should be used as ambassadors and also as candid friends, pointing out how practices must change to make the industry more attractive.

The Construction Industry Training Board predicts that about 80,000 recruits will be needed annually over the next five years if the industry is to keep getting through its work. Given the present image of construction, that is a pretty challenging target.

At the same time, the Women and Manual Trades organisation has set a 5% target for the proportion of women in the sector. That doesn't sound overambitious – until you set it against the story so far. Yet to some extent, the two targets are interdependent. And the price of failure will be an even tighter labour market.

That does not make a lot of commercial sense. At some point, every thinking, self-interested company is going to have to recognise the seriousness of recruitment issues – including the unnaturally limited pool of labour that the construction industry currently draws on. Government, and particularly the education system, also has its part to play in changing perceptions and expectations.

At present, fewer than one in a hundred tradespeople working on building sites is female

And even the hacks who find the mere mention of women in the construction industry the irresistible cue for laughter might become a bit more respectful if the plumbing, electrical and building firms in their locality were able to cope with their demands this month rather than next – but only because of the women they've just taken on.

It's always good to see the elements of my ministerial brief – energy, construction and environment – coming together in a three-part harmony. So, I enjoyed opening Catchgate School in County Durham which was a Movement for Innovation demonstration project.

A windmill beside the playing field will generate a electricity and rainfall will be recycled to meet sanitary needs. The school also won a Home Office award for being designed to minimise the risk of crime. Better still, these special features are being used as practical educational tools.

It's when you see a project like this that you wonder why anyone would do it any other way.

I would like to think that there are no schools being built these days that don't include the best environmental and energy efficient features.