In the third of five monthly articles in association with ConstructionSkills, Building looks at how construction recruitment and training is being dragged into the 21st century.

People perceive construction as a white, male-dominated industry. They think every construction site they pass is fuelled by testosterone and macho bravado, where men expose their builders’ cleavage, shout suggestive comments at women, and indulge in competitive banter over endless cups of tea. They feel alienated by construction’s reputation for casual labour, dangerous conditions and long hours. They see it as archaic and backward – an industry that has somehow reached the 21st century without admitting women and ethnic minorities to its ranks. Such a vivid and negative image raises an important question: why is construction perceived as being so far behind the rest of society?

Because it is. Maybe the stereotype doesn’t fit every site, but the public’s perception is spot on about the lack of sexual and cultural diversity in the workforce. Out of all of construction’s trainees only 3% are women and only 4% are from ethnic minorities. And out of construction’s employees, only about 49,000 are from ethnic minorities compared with the 1.7 million in the economy as a whole. The percentage of women employees has actually declined from 11.7% in 1992 to 9.3% in 2002, with a lower percentage for manual trades: 1.7% in 1992, dropping to just 1% in 2002 – that’s worse than any other industry bar mining.

Construction only has itself to blame. For decades companies did not try to recruit women and ethnic minorities because they never needed to. There were more trainee applicants than there were places, and still are. So why go in search of people who do not apply? Unlike in other sectors such as banking or retail, construction firms have been largely shielded from external competition. Most operate in regional markets unchallenged by outside organisations. They never needed to adopt slicker business methods, they never hired HR consultants or recognised the value of “softer skills”. Patricia Turrell of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Construction and Technology says: “Companies don’t even see women or ethnic minorities - they are almost invisible. They need to go out of their way to look at how they recruit and where they are recruiting.”

Construction’s bad old ways are no longer acceptable. Politicians have promised their voters more shiny new schools, hospitals, transport links and houses - and they want a modern shiny construction industry to build them. The DfES alone expects to spend more than £65bn over the next 10 years, while Kate Barker’s housing supply report said an additional 120,000 homes need to be built a year. Add to that all the PFI hospitals in the pipeline, and the possibilities of Crossrail and of London winning the 2012 Olympic Games, and suddenly the skills shortage begins to look frightening. Construction needs 83,000 new recruits a year, which broken down means 46,000 site operatives, 16,000 managerial and clerical staff, 7000 professionals and 14,000 building services operatives.

Calls for a modern, efficient construction industry are now coming from the very top. Government offices and corporate boards want to see a change in image and in reality, and the first place to start is in training. In an industry in which 75% of firms do not take on apprentices, it’s hard for anyone starting out in construction. But it’s harder if you are not male or white. According to an Equal Opportunities Commission report published earlier this year, in 2002/03 only 1% of people starting construction Modern Apprenticeships were women. The EOC wants the government to change aspects of the scheme, such as low pay and restrictions of tax relief for childcare, to encourage “atypical” candidates to apply.

Employers will have to change working practices too. Adapting to cultural differences and allowing for family commitments are two of the basics. Sandi Rhys Jones, who devised Building Work for Women, says: “There is a need for better working conditions and career development generally - for men and women.” She believes that the issues that will attract women, such as allowing flexible working hours, setting up mentoring schemes, and ongoing training, will attract more people. She also argues that women have a positive influence on the industry, not just in terms of communication skills and teamwork, but over health and safety issues: “It’s easier for a woman to say ‘you must be joking, I’m not going up that scaffolding without a harness’. Women can question the macho culture and make a tangible difference.”

Construction has to change radically, and now is the perfect time. Those who used to dismiss the idea of working in construction are beginning to show an interest - perhaps prompted by talk of plumbers earning a grand a day. Those stories may exaggerate, but it is true that wages have risen 16% in the past two years. Another encouraging statistic is that the number of companies monitored by key performance indicators that are using equality and diversity policies has increased from 2% to 46%. Forward-looking companies are also looking at how to increase their training provision, often working together through the partnering process.

An example is a scheme called “More than Bricks and Mortar” in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, where Pennine Housing, Lovell and Keepmoat took on 40 local apprentices, 25% of whom are from ethnic minorities (see “Partnering: How companies are training together”, opposite).

It’s been a long time coming, but it seems there is now an opportunity for construction to become a fully modern industry. To prevent the industry blowing this chance, ConstructionSkills has set a target to increase recruitment of ethnic minorities and women trainees by 10% a year over the next three years. It’s an ambitious figure but it might just be achievable. What is needed is a different approach to training. Nothing less than a co-ordinated effort from the whole industry will be adequate for the scale of the task.

What’s in it for contractors?

On the partnering contracts we do the training in conjunction with the other partners and we agree numbers that we will employ year on year. It's part of our KPI commitment, but it's something we want to do because we are feeding the skills need of the industry. We like to think that we're not just going on a site to carry out the work but we are bringing along real jobs.

For each partnering scheme we sit down with the client. For example, in Bradford it's the Bradford Community Housing Trust and the other partnering contractors and we agree achievable targets. It's pointless saying that we'll achieve huge numbers year on year, because we just won’t achieve those numbers. The work has got to be there in the first place for the trainees. But we find we can agree achievable numbers with the partners, which is about four per contractor per year on each partnering scheme. So we can have up to 20 going through at any one time. If everybody replicated our small effort, it would mean big numbers going through. We like to think we will retain some of our trainees as employees, but even if they move on elsewhere it is added to the pool of recruits. You've got to have a wider view of it. We will pick up someone else's trainee. It's got to be wider than just thinking "they are our people and will remain our people".

Partnering: How companies are training together

More Than Bricks and Mortar is a partnership between housing association Pennine Housing and housebuilders Keepmoat and Lovell. The scheme is one of 17 social housing projects that signed up to a programme called Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities, launched by CITB-ConstructionSkills and the Housing Forum.

Pennine Housing was set up in 2000 to transfer houses from council control in Calderdale, West Yorkshire. The housing association had a £112m budget to refurbish 13,000 homes in first five years, and is committed to a 30-year maintenance plan. But all the partners involved, including Keepmoat and Lovell, knew a skills shortage in the area could hamper their efforts. So together they set up the More Than Bricks And Mortar training programme in 2001, targeting local people.

The trainees were put through a building maintenance operatives NVQ, developed by the partners and the local college in Calderdale to meet the specific needs of the project. The broad nature of the qualification means they become skilled in joinery, bricklaying, plastering and plumbing. "At the end of the day you end up with someone who can refurbish a whole house," says Martin Reed, workforce development manager at Pennine.

Now near the end of the initial programme 40 trainees have achieved their NVQs, 25% of whom are from ethnic minorities, mostly from the local Pakistani community. Reed says this encouraging statistic was achieved through hard work: "It involved a lot of legwork. There's a big cultural barrier to working in the industry. So we've done work with families and in mosques to show them the good side of construction."

During their training the candidates are rotated, so they get experience with each of the companies. But the trainees also have a single point of contact, Sharon Tyer, who works for Lovell but co-ordinates the programme for all the partners. Her role is to support the trainees whenever they have a problem or need advice: "The reason retention is so good and the outcomes for candidates has been positive, is because of the way the programme is run. They’ve had a designated person to hold their hand." The scheme's retention rate is 80%, compared with the 35% average for NVQs.

And the support does not stop once the two years of training is over. Each of the partners aims to take on a certain number of candidates as full-time employees, so everyone gets a job. And subcontractors have shown an interest too, says Reed: "Some trainees are picked off by subcontractors along the way, they notice someone's good and offer them work and they're off. And that's fine for us because that frees another place. We’re not just doing it for our company - it’s a little bit wider than that."

What lovell's trainees think

Name Gareth Trigg
Age 22
Job title Tenant liaison officer in Kirklees.

This is only my second day on the job. I have just finished my multiskilling NVQ as part of the More Than Bricks and Mortar scheme and I really enjoyed it. Without that apprenticeship I wouldn't be where I am today. Before, I was just flitting between labouring jobs. When I turned 20 I decided to sort my head out and get something permanent. I've learned loads of skills I never thought I would. I used to watch joiners putting on doors and think "I want to be able to do that"; I didn't want to be a labourer the rest of my life. While I was training I liked explaining to tenants the work we were doing and then I got offered this job. I'm pleased because it's a proper career and if I want to go back to the tools then I can do that later.

Name Monica Williams
Age 16
Apprenticeship Joinery NVQ levels 1 & 2.

I was always interested in making things at school. My technology teacher encouraged me to go into construction. My friends were really shocked and and laughed at me when I said what I wanted to do. At first I was a bit intimidated by being the only girl, especially at college where the lads are young. On site they are older, and they look after you. They took the mickey out of me at the start – but I just did it back and got their respect. Now I love the atmosphere on site, you can have a laugh. So far I've done a bit of kitchen fitting, stud walls and floor-boarding. Now I'm working on a school that's being converted into offices, we're putting up timber walls. I'd like to do more courses and eventually become a site manager.

Name Irsan Ishaq
Age 19
Apprenticeship First year of joinery NVQ levels 1 & 2.

I got my placement with the help of Youth Build in February this year. Construction always interested me; my cousin is a joiner and he told me that it was good fun and always interesting and different. Now I'm encouraging my younger brother to go into the trade. I'm from a Pakistani background; I haven't found many other Asians in the industry and not that many of my friends from school have done what I'm doing. But it's not a problem because I enjoy my work. I've always been treated like everyone else on site, I've never had problems with the way people have reacted to me, they've been really helpful. Once I'm a qualified joiner I hope to get a permanent job with Lovell.

Nina's story: how I became a plumber

I'm in my second year of training for a plumbing NVQ level 2 at North-West London college. I work on a new-build site in east London for company called Orchard Plumbing a few days a week to get my site experience for the NVQ. Before construction, I did loads of different jobs. I worked for a retail company in London where I became a manager. Three years ago I was made redundant twice in one year - I decided it was time to retrain.

I'd always wanted to work in construction. It sounds silly but I didn't really know how to go about it. I'd never seen any women on building sites or even women tradespeople. It's one of those things that if I'd been a bloke I would have been on a building site. I never knew that I could do it. Then I read the Evening Standard one day that mentioned Women's Education in Building (WEB), and I got in touch and they helped me find a course and a placement.

WEB has now closed down, which is a shame. They helped a lot women gain confidence to join the industry. Going on to a building site when you've got 100 men can be quite daunting. I count myself as one of the lucky ones to have got that support to begin with.

WEB also paid my college fees for the first year, now I'll have to pay for the second year, which will be about £700 for the NVQ and a technician's certificate. I'm lucky that I've got my mum's support. I live with her so I don't have to pay rent. Also I don't have a family. Some of the other women on the course won’t be able to continue because they can't afford it. One girl dropped out because WEB were giving her help towards childcare and she could not get the same amount direct from the college. Others had to drop out because they can't find placements.

I really enjoy working on site. They're a good bunch of lads. Once they can see you're a grafter and you're serious about what you're doing, they are more than willing to help you. You can get a funny look from some men, who are thinking a woman shouldn't do a man's job. But once you show that they don't have to change their behaviour because a woman's around then it's normally all right. I love the fact that every day is different. You have to use your brain and it's physically demanding too. It's hard work but you feel you've achieved something.

I've just been offered a part-time maintenance job, which I'm really pleased about. One of my tutors told me about a job that came up to do maintenance work for an old people's home. I applied, thinking I wouldn't get it because they were looking for people with two years' experience. But I've come up trumps. So from September I'll be there three days a week and will have one day at college and one day at the building site. I'll be earning the same doing this part-time job as I did when I worked full time in retail, and I'm not yet qualified.

In the future I want to go on to do my level 3 and my gas qualification. After that I want to do specialist courses in heating and ventilation. And then become self-employed, run a company of my own. I've toyed with the idea of setting up an agency to help women get work. Or maybe I'll teach. There are just so many options.

Readers' views: I'll tell you what construction needs ...

We need to brainstorm
The main problem is lack of investment in apprenticeships and having poor communication with colleges. We need a huge brainstorming session to address all the problems.
Mr P Newbould, AS Newbould and Co Ltd

Housebuilders could do more
Many housebuilders are not keen on awarding contracts to small contractors. They want large amounts of labour at short notice, which can cause quality problems. The solution is training, investment and commitment from leading figures.
Kevin Locke, Kellan Developments

Let's professionalise our workers
Semi-skilled workers don't have the opportunity to develop the professional skills required. We're breeding cowboys. We need to be talking to the government to get funding to allow semi-skilled workers to take time off for training. Focusing our efforts on schoolchildren is not practical. It takes six to 10 years to train a child to be an engineer, but one or two years to get a worker to a higher level.
Richard Keirnan, Keirnan

Better late than never
The lack of skilled labour should have been addressed during the 1990s, maybe with CSCS we have a chance to address it now.
Peter Atherton, Eomac UK Ltd

Where's the leadership?
I have worked with small firms and there is a real lack of leadership skills due to lack of training and no plans for growth. We need to create awareness.
Lindsey Van Der Westhuizen, Impala UK Ltd

CSCS cards could do even more
I am enthusiastically in favour of the CSCS card as it provides proof to an employer, client or customer that the operative is properly trained in the trade detailed on the back of the card to a satisfactory level. However, the card only indicates that the holder is able to carry out the work to a minimum standard. It is no guarantee of excellence. It also does not promote continual training, which is beneficial to those working for a specialist firm.
James Newby, quantity surveyor