Without diversity, construction will never truly modernise

Vicky Savage is group director, development and sales, at L&Q

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

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

I want to focus on one aspect of that – the ‘boys’ club’ image. While we’ve made progress, women still represent about 14% of the UK’s construction workforce, despite comprising 37% of new entrants from higher education. There is a huge pool of talent that we aren’t reaching.

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

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

Two positive trends

There are grounds for optimism. I’m responsible for running L&Q’s Development and Sales division, and when I look at our 32,000-home pipeline, I see two trends that offer opportunities to realise an overdue culture change.

Firstly, the industry is modernising away from traditional build methods and towards off-site manufacturing in factory settings. L&Q is fast becoming a sector leader for modern methods of construction (MMC), using new approaches across our pipeline, including through the Advanced Industrialised Methods for the Construction of Homes (AIMCH) project.

This £6.5m Innovate UK-funded research and development initiative is a collaboration between L&Q, Stewart Milne Group, Barratts, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre and Forster Roofing Services. For the last three years, it has been researching and trialling offsite solutions to meet housebuilding demands on live housing projects across the UK.

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

Secondly, our sites are changing and becoming more inclusive, safer, welfare-focused environments. There will always be a place for manual labour, but new career pathways are being created. The factory environment has a science lab feel to it, challenging the stereotypes of what construction looks like. This will appeal to a diverse range of applicants.

We are seeing more site leaders entering from graduate programmes. The next generation understand diversity and will inject fresh ideas into our industry. L&Q has 20 apprentices and graduates from a range of backgrounds, and we’re looking at how we can increase that number. But this needs to go beyond hiring.

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

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

Those of us in senior positions have a responsibility to act as role models and lead change from the front. At L&Q, our chief executive, development committee chair, half of my divisional leadership team and myself are female, so it can be done.

A critical juncture

The industry is at a critical juncture; the long-term problems of the skills shortage are starting to bite, and a modernised sector is gearing up to major challenges around supply, quality and sustainability.

This is 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 pick up highly transferable skills.

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

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

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