UK: Changing the Face of Construction

Last Updated: 8 June 2005
Article by Lindsay Yuill

Originally published 17 March 2005

The UK construction industry is one of the country's largest and most important employers. It is worth £1.5 billion, provides a tenth of the UK's gross domestic product and employs 1.4 million people. Further, the industry is one of the strongest in the world, with output ranked in the global top ten according to the Department of Trade and Industry. With their experience gained from private sector to public sector projects, British consultants and contractors are well positioned to offer skills and experience gained from PFI projects and to provide high-tech solutions for environmental, transport and building projects.

During the first quarter of 2004 the UK construction industry saw its biggest growth in demand for its services in 10 years, according to the RICS Construction Market Survey. However, 43% of respondents to the survey reported recruiting difficulties during that time and, according to the Learning and Skills Council, 40% of job vacancies advertised remained unfilled. Research by the Construction Industry Training Board shows that another 415,800 people are needed in the industry over the next 4 years, in London alone another 40,500 people by 2006 to cope with demand. It is no wonder the Learning and Skills Council says more must be done to attract the skills and resources offered by the female workforce.

The image of the industry for many women is one which is dangerous, dirty and lacking in equal opportunities. Stereotypical views of women's ability regarding physical labour may deter women from entering the industry. There is a perception of it as having a culture developed by men for men, such that the working environment is seen as a potential problem, and some may fear sexual harassment.

Currently, women account for around 9% of the construction workforce. This breaks down as 1% of trades-people, 10% of those working in design and management, 84% secretarial, 2% are sole traders and 4% are micro-enterprises (employing 1-10 people). These figures have remained relatively static for the last 10 years.

CITB Chairman Sir Michael Latham, during his series of nationwide seminars to help raise awareness of construction as a viable career path for all members of the community said, "the construction industry does not look like Britain. Britain is not all male or all white. Women represent 45% of the economically active population, and ethnic minorities (half of whom are also female) 5.2%. Despite an emerging trend for women to take construction–related degrees and vocational qualifications…the industry has effectively been ignoring over half the potential labour force in this country. This situation is not new. I pointed it out in a report which I wrote on the construction industry in 1994".

In the period since the Latham report ("Constructing the Team") 10 years ago there has been some progress in recruiting women, there is a handful of more senior women in the industry, and a number of women's networking groups. The National Association of Women in Construction which started over 50 years ago in the United States, has opened a UK branch that looks to promote professional women in construction. Promoting Women in Construction is a Network Matrix provided by Reading College to provide links to information, support and training available to help recruit and retain women in construction at all levels. "Raising the Ratio" is a RICS campaign to increase the number of women training and working in surveying and Building Work for Women looks to successfully bridge the gap between training and employment for women in construction trades.

The CITB has developed a three point plan to encourage more women into construction under its Diversity Strategy Initiative. Through education school children have been given the opportunity to sample the construction industry through class projects. Positive Image campaigning was aimed at attracting men and women into the industry by highlighting the positive aspects of a construction career. Finally, by continuing to support employers, there have been increased targets for apprenticeships and local regeneration projects have encouraged clients to seek out more women applicants for vacancies.

"Change the Face of Construction" is an independent project which encourages greater diversity across all sectors of the construction industry. It is a practical campaign to tackle issues highlighted in two of the definitive reports on construction performance. Sir Michael Latham drew attention to the industry's poor equal opportunities record, and Sir John Egan ("Rethinking Construction") drew attention to the need for greater respect for the workforce. There is a clear need to continue to foster greater awareness among those in the industry and promote the various initiatives in order to attract more women.

For an industry faced with a national skills shortage, it makes sense to utilise the resources the female workforce has to offer.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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