Now there are signs of a response. One is being led by QS MDA and contractor Mansell, which are pioneering a new concept in construction: "mentoring", or offering a helping hand to black and Asian firms struggling to get a foothold in the industry.
The rest of the industry should take note if it wants to avoid headlines such as the recent attack by would-be London mayor Trevor Phillips on the under-representation of ethnic minorities in the Housing Corporation and construction union UCATT's allegation of racism against Alfred McAlpine. The union criticised the contractor for employing only six black workers out of a 124-strong workforce in Brent, a borough of north-west London with a high percentage of non-white residents.
In the MDA and Mansell initiative, which was prompted by BT, the two firms have agreed to act as mentors to black and Asian firms. This involves giving them experience of working with major corporate clients as well as offering practical advice on management and IT. Taylor Woodrow has also got in on the mentoring act with "Into Leadership", a pilot project that offers black and Asian graduates a week's work with a senior manager. The Construction Industry Council's equal opportunities taskforce is also considering setting up a scheme.
Challenging the status quo
The Commission for Racial Equality is backing mentoring as an effective way of challenging the status quo in white, male-dominated industries such as construction. Spokesperson Virginia Gibbons says: "It allows people to get practical experience of areas they may never have considered open or appropriate to them. We're all in favour of it in construction. It is not a panacea, but as part of a package of measures to open a previously closed industry, mentoring is valuable."
BT's own mentoring programme is part of the company's "supplier diversity" programme, which aims to make its supply chains representative of the whole UK population. Cecilia Joseph runs the programme, which was launched last August. "My challenge was to find out why ethnic minority businesses were not approaching the company," says Joseph. "It turned out that either they thought they were too small or they didn't know how to go about approaching a large organisation like BT. We realised that through our subcontractors, we could offer to help small firms and create a greater awareness among them about how big corporations work."
Eme is trying to grow his business, but in the meantime MDA staff are available to him for a percentage of his fee, and vice versa
Graham Kent, MDA, on the benefits for the mentoring firm
It is understood that in future, suppliers that offer to act as mentors could be favoured over those that are not taking part in the scheme, but at the moment, says BT, this is not a prerequisite for doing business with the firm.
Generating new work
After being approached by Joseph, Mansell agreed to act as mentor for Liverpool-based black firm Shokoya Elshin Construction, but it is still in the process of getting the scheme off the ground. However, MDA's link-up with London-based QS Eme Kalu Associates has already generated some work for the three-strong practice. Until now, the firm had found it hard to break out of the cycle of doing housing association work.
Graham Kent, MDA's BT account manager, signed up as a mentor in January and after looking at the portfolios of several businesses, selected the practice as a "mentee". He agreed to participate in the mentoring scheme for a 12-month trial period and says he is pleased with progress so far. However, he admits that he was a little sceptical of the idea at first – he had never heard of mentoring.
"I struggled to see the benefit to us at the outset. Potentially, there's a lot to gain for a small organisation, but if you're not careful you could spend a lot of time feeding them opportunities that they wouldn't be able to handle," he says.
The MDA director has not found the task of mentoring Eme Kalu Associates as onerous as he first feared. Kent and Nigerian-born Eme Kalu meet once a month and talk on the phone at least once a week. So far, the small practice has joined MDA on one project – a refurbishment feasibility study for BT. Kent hopes to introduce Kalu to other accounts, as well as giving him IT advice and helping with his quality assurance certificate application.
I’ve been in the industry since 1983 and I’ve survived, but mentoring has opened so many doors. It’s the only way forward for the likes of us
Eme Kalu, Eme Kalu Associates
Experience of big clients
Getting practical experience of how a big client such as BT functions is invaluable. But there are other, less tangible benefits, too – such as the kudos of being associated with a large practice like MDA. When Kalu writes to new companies for work, he mentions his association with MDA. If, as a result, he wins more work than he can handle, MDA will step into the breach for a share of the fees.
Kalu admits the mentoring scheme has opened up opportunities for him. "I've been in the industry since 1983 and I've survived, but this has opened so many doors. I've been to parties to meet other professionals. We don't normally work with companies of the size that have cocktail parties," he says.
Kent has introduced Kalu to colleagues and contacts at various functions and the pair are planning to attend an industry lunch club soon. "It's the only way forward for the likes of us. In the firm I worked for before I started my own practice, they played golf and that's how they did business. It's a closed shop," Kalu says.
In the end, says Kent, MDA's decision to support the mentoring scheme came down to personal choice. "I suppose it was a moral decision for me," he says. "Personally, I'm pleased to help the practice but at the end of the day they are also competitors." That said, he points to the benefits for his own firm: "There's a time lag. Eme is trying to grow his business and will take on more staff, but in the meantime MDA staff are available to him for a percentage of his fee, and vice versa."