Are diversity and inclusion initiatives the answer to construction’s skills gap?

Emily Carr is design manager at Kier Construction North & Scotland, and former vice-chair of Built Environment – Smarter Transformation’s BE Change Makers

For me, construction isn’t just about building – it’s about ensuring we create spaces for people to thrive. And this philosophy should extend to the people who work in the sector, too.

“Sweden’s holistic approach shows that to move the dial, we must reach and re-educate every stakeholder”

It is well documented that construction has a long way to go regarding diversity and inclusion (D&I). Currently, only 15 per cent of the workforce are women, of which about 2 per cent work on site. Meanwhile, only 6 per cent of all employees are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and 6 per cent are living with health conditions or disabilities. These figures make sombre reading.

We don’t currently have a workforce large or skilled enough to address the challenges facing the built environment, such as the climate emergency, population growth and technological transformation. And the issue is becoming more pressing – it’s projected that by 2027 the industry will need to recruit an additional 224,900 workers.

To close this ever-widening skills gap, it’s critical that our industry attracts a diverse cohort of talent.

Beyond recruitment and retention

Last year, I travelled to Sweden on behalf of the Churchill Fellowship. There, I researched ongoing D&I initiatives and spoke to numerous workers to determine whether the 2030 goal set by the Swedish government to increase the number of women in construction was having an effect. The research found that to meaningfully change our workforce, we must first change the way it operates. 

Specifically, it showed that initiatives cannot only focus on attraction and retention – they must also focus on developing and promoting talent in a cycle that encourages continual and sustainable upskilling. This in turn is fuelled by catalysts including rolling education; rolling communication; inclusive workplace set-ups; feedback loops; flexible working patterns; progressive leadership; and government incentives.

All ongoing D&I initiatives were compiled into a free online interactive map called the System of Change to demonstrate to UK construction leaders how many different approaches there are to widen access to careers in construction and the built environment. Take rolling education as an example. Typically, in the UK, when we’ve tried to move public opinion away from the misconception that construction is ‘muddy, male and manual’, we’ve focused on going to schools and talking to young people. But if we really want to address the skills shortage, we can’t rely on those starting their careers. The industry must be more proactive than that and transform itself.

Educational initiatives need to be rolling, meaning they stretch across each stage of the cycle to raise awareness of D&I throughout the supply chain and allow diverse teams to develop and thrive. Successful rolling education initiatives employed in Sweden include Q&A podcasts on skills and apprenticeship schemes; open site days for local communities to learn about different skills and people working in their neighbourhoods; and video content on social media showcasing a day in the life of various roles and graduate schemes.

Sweden’s holistic approach shows that to move the dial, we must reach and re-educate every stakeholder. While we regularly open our sites to local communities, including during Open Doors Week, we also need to show prospective talent that we want a diverse workforce who can bring different perspectives. To make this happen, we need to implement initiatives that attract, develop, retain and promote talent, while modernising the way workplaces are run and behave.

Although the risk of getting it wrong might be daunting, let’s remember that we created the current structure, so we have the power to change it.

Embodying change

We have to think about the bigger picture. There is an incredible pool of talent across the UK that we have failed to reach or develop. 

I am proud to work in the industry; I feel valued, and I know the difference my work makes to communities. I am determined to use my voice to show others what this industry has to offer.

And I know people are listening. Over the past nine months, I have reverse-mentored a member of our executive committee through Kier’s Empower programme, which is specifically for those from underrepresented groups. My mentee and I advocated for change by co-hosting a D&I event in Scotland. What’s more, I have also presented further ideas to our senior leaders.

Advocating for change means being the change we seek. The moment we succeed, our workforce will become resilient enough to rise to the challenges we face and, critically, to unlock opportunities that benefit our workforce, the projects we deliver and the communities we serve.

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