Employers should analyse ethnic data and establish ethnic profiles of their workforce

Recently, six young architecture students, the winners of a competition organised by the Stephen Lawrence Trust and sponsored by architect RMJM, returned from Harvard University. The winners include Callum Gilbert, a victim of knife crime from Liverpool who left school with few qualifications but has a renewed determination to turn his life around, and shop assistant Oni Hinton from London – a star pupil who wanted to become an architect from a very young age but lost her way following family problems and illness.

They’d attended a six-week summer school in architecture, and the confidence they returned with was amazing. The students spoke about their experiences last month at the annual Stephen Lawrence Memorial lecture, and during the event, one of the young men was brave enough to ask RMJM for a job. Good for him – a career in architecture is about being brave, being in the right place at the right time and taking risks.

Architecture and the built environment are demanding professions whatever your background, and especially so for the young people we work with. When you come from a deprived background and there are perhaps two or three generations of worklessness in your family, career aspirations tend to be low. And if you’re from a deprived background and have a visible difference – the colour of your skin, for example – it’s even tougher.

We help young people to negotiate the barriers that stand between them and a career in the built environment. When you consider that only 2% of architects in this country are black or minority ethnic and just 3.3% of the construction industry as a whole, you can appreciate that many young people from ethnic minorities might feel unsure about planning a future in what is essentially a white male industry.

We run a national programme in partnership with RMJM, called Architecture for Everyone, based around workshops that encourage young people to think about all careers in the built environment, not just architecture. Last year we covered Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow as well as London. We also provide bursaries to architecture students under a national programme, as well as a targeted programme for young people in the five host boroughs for the Olympics.

The opening of the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Deptford, south-east London, has enabled more than 800 young people to access training and support in the past year. We’ve also just started working with young people not in education, employment or training – the NEET group. We use design, art and other skills to engage the young people and to help develop their basic and life skills.

Stephen Lawrence dreamt of becoming an architect and now we want other young people to dream too.

It’s all out raising aspirations and inviting young people to think about career options that they were never encouraged to consider. It’s a paradox that while the built environment is all round us, the career paths within in it are often invisible.

Workforces should represent the local community, otherwise companies aren’t making best use of local skills and knowledge. Employers need to make sure they are meeting all the relevant legislation on gender equality, racial equality and disability discrimination, and requirements to use local labour. Professional bodies and employers should analyse ethnic data, establish ethnic profiles of their members or workforce and take positive action to address under-representation.

But even though there are often contractual clauses about using local labour and providing skills training, we know that some companies just pay lip service to them. But when local labour policies do work, and you can see the results and the positive impact on a community, then surely that company will do better than an all-white rival importing workers from elsewhere?

The six students who went to Harvard were able to improve their confidence and develop dreams and aspirations. Their trip has had an enormous impact – one has been offered part-time work at the RMJM Glasgow office and another has just won a clearing place to study architecture at university.