Ballal Raza is a down-to-earth Brummie project manager with bags of confidence and plenty of commitment – and the industry needs to recruit thousands more just like him. We met a young Asian professional taking construction's image issues in his stride.
Race continues to be a difficult subject for the industry. We are all familiar with the Construction Industry Training Board's statistics showing that 2% of the industry's personnel are Asian or black, whereas they make up 6.7% of the UK's working population. Then there are the instances where racism is exposed by a public tribunal, such as the case of Najjif Shah, who won compensation last year after his colleagues on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link site accused him of being "a spy for Osama Bin Laden".

That said, young Asian professionals such as Ballal Raza give some cause for optimism. He is a bright, likable motormouth who works as a project manager for Lend Lease. And he is living proof that managers from ethnic minorities can make smooth and rapid progress in the industry.

The 25-year-old Brummie is brimming with enthusiasm for construction and wants to spread the message to other Asians that it is can offer them a well-paid career.

Before that message can get through, though, the industry has to somehow present itself in a favourable light to a culture that prizes doctors and lawyers highly – and builders not at all. "Unfortunately, that system was not broken away from when our parents moved to this country," says Raza, a second generation Pakistani brought up on a tough estate in central Birmingham.

He initially bowed to his parents' ambition and aimed at becoming a doctor, but failed to secure the necessary grades. He views this as a blessing in disguise – he fainted when he saw a doctor taking a blood sample when he visited a hospital at the age of 19. But after this setback, Raza was free to consider the career he really wanted – and had shown an early aptitude for.

People didn’t expect an Asian lad to be chairing meetings. I had to work twice as hard to make sure I was coming out clear

"I'd always been interested in buildings and drawings since I started playing with Lego as a kid," he recalls. At the age of 16, he produced plans to redevelop a rundown cinema in the centre of Birmingham that were published in a local newspaper, indicating a precocious talent for the trade.

This interest led him to a surveying degree at Sheffield Hallam University. Despite their veneration for the medical profession, Raza's parents took his decision well. "The point for them was that their son was going to university," he says. He believes this reaction shows that the Asian community is becoming more open-minded about the career choices of its young people. "It's changing now," he says. "If the children have an understanding of what is available in the industry then they should be able to fight their own battles with their parents."

But even if the older generation is realising that construction can offer financial rewards and social status, the industry still has an image issue among younger Asians and Raza's twentysomething contemporaries. "There's a lack of understanding within ethnic minorities about exactly what the industry has to offer," says Raza, pointing out that IT, administration and law are all seen as having better prospects and pay. "My mates still think of me as mixing cement on site with my trousers hanging down and a copy of The Sun in my back pocket," he adds.

Raza first worked on sites in his placement year during his degree, on jobs including the £50m Nottingham University Jubilee Campus, designed by Michael Hopkins. "I didn't have any problem, apart from typical male teasing," he says. "I was a young lad on site; there was nothing particularly racial."

Rather than race, Raza saw his size and age as problems when he started in the sector. "Four years ago, I was eight-and-a-half stone.

I was right small. I used to wear the luminous jacket with the cuffs rolled back to get my hands showing. The jacket nearly crawled on the ground." But he was given some useful advice. "Even though I wanted to get away from physical work into project management they were saying to me that to make big decisions, I needed more presence. I needed to bulk up a bit, so I started going to the gym." These days, Raza is a bulkier 11-and-a-half stone.