Without diversity, construction will never truly modernize

Vicky Savage is Group Director, Development and Sales, at L&Q

What do you think of when you think of the construction industry? Despite advances in recent years, for many the typical construction worker will still be an older white male, and the average job site a harsh environment fraught with safety hazards and long hours.

In 2016, the Mark Farmer Upgrade or die The report identified the poor image of the industry as one of many deep challenges facing construction, deterring the next generation of workers from entering the sector.

I want to focus on one aspect of this – the “boys club” image. Although we have made progress, women still represent approximately 14% of the construction workforce in the UK, although they represent 37% of new entrants from higher education. There’s a huge talent pool that we’re not reaching.

Last year, 175,000 people left the construction industry. The number of non-UK born workers has risen from 305,000 to 280,000 between 2019 and 2020. Unless we tap into the widest range of talent, we will be sleepwalking into a skills crisis.

But it will also help us to do better. Diverse businesses are open to new ways of thinking. According to McKinsey, companies with more female leaders perform better than those dominated by men. Many women I know are excellent negotiators who are adept at seeking win-win outcomes.

Two positive trends

There are reasons to be optimistic. I am responsible for leading the Development and Sales division of L&Q, and when I look at our pipeline of 32,000 homes, I see two trends that offer opportunities to achieve a culture shift that is long overdue.

First, the industry is modernizing, moving away from traditional construction methods and towards off-site factory fabrication. L&Q is quickly becoming an industry leader in Modern Construction Methods (MMC), utilizing new approaches across our pipeline, including through the Project Advanced Industrialized Methods for Building Houses (AIMCH).

This £6.5 million research and development initiative funded by Innovate UK is a collaboration between L&Q, Stewart Milne Group, Barratts, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Construction Scotland Innovation Center and Forster Roofing Services. Over the past three years he has researched and tested off-site solutions to meet housing construction demands on live housing projects across the UK.

“Our sites must be inclusive environments with a zero tolerance approach to discrimination”

Second, our sites are evolving to become more inclusive, safer and wellness-focused environments. There will always be a place for manual work, but new career paths are being created. The factory environment has a science lab feel, defying stereotypes of what construction looks like. It will appeal to a wide range of applicants.

We are seeing more and more site managers entering from graduate programs. The next generation will understand diversity and inject new ideas into our industry. L&Q has 20 apprentices and graduates from a variety of backgrounds, and we are looking at how we can increase this number. But it must go beyond hiring.

A report last year found that more than four in ten women and non-binary construction tradespeople had left or were considering leaving the trades, with harassment cited as a key factor.

Our sites should be inclusive environments with a zero tolerance approach to discrimination. We strive to enroll female apprentices and graduates through Women in Construction events, and provide our female staff on site with a female mentor based elsewhere in the business for support and career guidance. Our apprentices and graduates are treated as part of the operations team, with opportunities to visit sites, supply chain factories and internal departments. There must be a clear path to progression.

Those of us in leadership positions have a responsibility to act as role models and lead change from the front lines. At L&Q, our Managing Director, Chair of the Development Committee, half of my divisional leadership team and I are women, so it can be done.

A critical moment

The industry is at a critical juncture; the long-term problems of skills shortages are beginning to be felt and a modernized sector is preparing to meet major challenges in terms of supply, quality and sustainability.

It’s an exciting time to join construction. There is nothing more rewarding than building beautiful homes that will change people’s lives. Promotion is based on ability and attitude, not your background, and you will gain highly transferable skills.

But, to achieve our ambitions, we need to invest in new talent, while fostering inclusive work environments where all of our staff can truly thrive. Diversity means everyone thrives.

So if you have ambition and drive, but are put off by the industry’s image problem, my message is simple: whoever you are and wherever you come from, there is a place for you in construction. Come be part of the change that is reshaping the industry.

Alice F. Ponder