Tackling construction’s diversity challenge
It is well documented that construction has a long way to go when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Currently, only 15% of the workforce are women, of which around 2% work on site. Meanwhile, only 6% of all employees are from ethnic minority backgrounds and 6% are living with health conditions or disabilities. These figures make sombre reading and demonstrate there is so much more to be done.
"My Fellowship research found that to meaningfully change our workforce, we must first change the way it operates."
The construction industry is crucial in addressing ongoing complex global challenges including climate change; accommodating population growth; and technological transformation.
However, we don’t yet have a workforce large enough, or appropriately skilled enough, to address these challenges and the issue is only becoming more urgent – it’s projected that by 2027 the industry will need to recruit 224,900 additional workers. To close this ever-widening skills gap, it’s critical our industry attracts a diverse cohort of talent.
Last year, I travelled to Sweden for my 2020 Churchill Fellowship to investigate current challenges and opportunities faced within the Swedish construction industry. I researched ongoing EDI initiatives and spoke to numerous workers to determine if the 2030 goal set by the Swedish Government to increase women in construction was having an effect.
This 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, creating 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.
As part of my research I compiled all ongoing EDI initiatives 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’ for example: Typically, in the UK, when trying to move public opinion away from the misconception that construction is ‘muddy, male and manual’ to encourage new talent into the sector, companies often focus on schools. But if we really want to address the skills shortage across the sector, we can’t rely on those starting their careers alone to create the change we need. The industry must be more proactive than this and transform itself internally first – we need to re-educate each stakeholder.
"Advocating for change means being the change we seek. We need to show prospective talent that we want a diverse workforce who can bring different perspectives, experiences and skills."
Successful ‘rolling education’ initiatives utilised in Sweden include Q&A podcasts on skills and apprenticeship schemes; open site days for local communities to learn about the different skills, roles and people involved in construction; and video content on social media showcasing ‘a day in the life of’ various roles and graduate schemes.
Advocating for change means being the change we seek. We need to show prospective talent that we want a diverse workforce who can bring different perspectives, experiences and skills. 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 seems daunting, we must remember we created the current structure, so we have the power to change it. We need to push for change until we create a workforce resilient enough to rise to the challenges we face; unlock opportunities that benefit the built environment and evolve the industry into something that better represents the communities we work in.
Since my research, all findings were disseminated to Kier’s Executive committee to inform our Diversity and Inclusion roadmap, the findings will also feed into the industry-wide Built-Environment Smarter Transformation (BE-ST) ‘DIveIn’ programme. The research will also help inform ongoing working group discussions at Construction Accord, a collaboration between the Scottish public sector and construction industry focused on modernising and transforming the sector.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.