Why is the construction industry facing a skills shortage? The answer may have something to do with the gentlemen at the top table
No wonder construction companies have an image problem. A woman or a member of an ethnic minority making it on to one of their boards is about as common as a giraffe among a herd of farmyard animals. But it's not just a problem at the director echelon; construction as a whole doesn't employ these groups in anything like the quantity that would reflect their presence in the working population. And this, of course, goes a long way to explaining the industrial angina that is construction's skills shortage.

This much we know. What is interesting is why? Why don't firms help themselves, never mind the public image of the industry, by seeking to attract people who aren't white males? A shocking answer to this question has emerged from a KPMG survey sent to the management of contractors and housebuilders with turnovers of more than £500m.

Two hundred executives, including 109 finance directors and 21 managing directors, replied. Ninety-one per cent said skills shortages were a major issue, and 99% said they would mean that they would turn away work, lose profit or miss deadlines. Fifty-six per cent said the shortage was most severe for skilled tradesmen, compared with 4% who said senior managers. But the real eye-opener came when two-thirds said they were not concerned by the under-representation of women in the industry, and a whopping four-fifths were not concerned about the lack of ethnic minorities.

Are skills shortages a major issue for the building and construction industry?
91% said YES

This seems to be an example of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance: managers are seeing the problem, but are ignoring the solution staring them in the face. And speaking of psychologists, here's what Patricia Justice, a psychotherapist who specialises in stress counselling, thinks of the results.

"The answers on women and minorities show they're not interested in equal opportunities. If you surveyed other industries, they'd be more aware that they need to bring in a greater variety of people. There must be something different about construction: they're old-fashioned and stuck with their ideas. They're saying: 'We don't care'. It seems to me they need some training to look at their values, see where this prejudice is coming from and work out how to change it."

Are you concerned by the number of ethnic minorities in the industry?
78% said NO

What gives the knife an extra twist is that 65% of the bosses say they don't know how to make their industry more attractive. Only 9% think that career progress and training might be good for staff morale. And 64% blame their troubles on a lack of skilled people in the labour market.

But they fail to see that they are themselves part of the problem. "The image of construction is very important to recruitment," says Richard Whittington, head of construction at management consultant KPMG. But the bosses look more like the stereotype of the white van man builder than leaders of the kind of large, sophisticated industrial enterprises that anyone in their right mind would want to join.

Are you concerned by women’s under-representation in the industry?
68% said NO

The good news is that there is a gap in the market for the more enlightened contractors out there. As Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, put it: "The 32% of executives who are worried about the lack of women are ahead of the game. Their businesses will reap the benefits of that foresight."

And are any firms doing this? Step forward Paul Gandy, managing director of Australian contractor Multiplex. He says: "I've always tried to encourage women into the industry, and it's always been a struggle. We don't see the same shortage of women in Australia. There's less of an issue about being a woman in the industry there – and that's a good thing."

In Britain there is Henry Boot's M Power programme, in which teenagers do one day's work experience a week for two years, and on which one-tenth of participants are female. One has just finished the course and applied for a modern apprenticeship in bricklaying. That woman gives her employer a small but real competitive advantage over its rivals: at present, only 1% of modern apprenticeships in construction are taken by women. Adrian Harrison, the firm's training manager, says: "The women we've had on our courses have enjoyed it. They're not treated as women – they're treated as bricklayers." He says his firm had 200 applications for 60 apprenticeships in Manchester.