Solving the second skills crisis

Where are the women in construction? There is a risk that the industry’s short-term focus on solving its migrant skills crisis could mean a much bigger opportunity around gender equality is ignored. While individual businesses are doing great work promoting women within their own workforce, what should the industry do as a whole?

gender equality in construction

Is there an opportunity in the transformation of construction to also transform our thinking about what the workforce of the future should be?

This issue was brought home to me when I attended a Select Committee hearing at the Scottish Parliament.  As to be expected, the enquiry covered many issues that are pertinent to the public sector client: skills, finance, payment and the aftermath of Carillion. But one issue where the witnesses found common ground was in response to a question on gender.  Not because we agreed, but because no one on the all-male panel was properly prepared to address the points behind the question and none of us could come up with really satisfactory suggestions for a solution.  

Bad for business

Let me be clear, this is a deep-seated problem that defies easy solution.  Organisations have been working hard to close the gender gap, but just how deep-rooted the issue is can be seen in figures that highlight that the female share of the sector workforce has been stuck at around 12-14% for over 20 years.  Furthermore, the proportion working as site operatives is a vanishingly small 2%.  

Having a gender imbalance like this is bad for business as well as a waste of opportunity. There is plenty of empirical data available to demonstrate that more diverse teams perform better and that these businesses are more profitable. 

Harnessing the change agenda 

Skilled trades and machine operative roles that characterise construction are amongst the job families that have remained male-dominated.  This means that changing the industry’s diversity profile could benefit from a change in the work we do, as well as a change in attitude by those that do it.

By moving work away from site and by changing the content of the work to manufacturing, assembly, logistics and quality control, the opportunities for women to participate in the construction workforce would increase.  It isn’t that we specifically need a fleet of factories to change the construction workplace, but the industry needs to own and use its change agenda to create a modern workforce as well as a technologically advanced industry. Fortunately, we have access to the support of an ambitious Sector Deal and Transformation Programme which is aimed at delivering social and environmental outcomes as well as cheaper and faster construction.  

Is it practical to think this programme can be harnessed to solve the second skills crisis?

The Workforce of the Future

There are a few aspects of the programme that suggest this could work.  Firstly, new skills and ways of working are going to be needed. Secondly, the transformation programme aims to bring new businesses into the sector, so again there is the opportunity to follow the example of other industries. Finally, as a sector with a key role in delivering homes, schools and railways, we offer jobs that genuinely deliver better outcomes.

As the industry comes to terms with the looming skills crisis, it is easy to look for ways of adapting the current model.  Yet the most important point is hidden in plain sight.  Whilst a culture of sexism and harassment is allowed to persist in some parts of the industry, then we will never fix the recruitment gap.  Furthermore, until the industry can be more flexible in the way that it employs people and more equal in both pay and treatment, then there will always be reasons to choose careers in other sectors. 

Businesses need to focus on updating, adopting and acting on the diversity agenda.  The visibility of women in leadership roles has long been a challenge for construction and it is an area where all parts of the industry can do more.  However, by recognising that there is a need to transform the workforce as well as the industry, perhaps we can mitigate the second skills crisis as well as the first.

Simon Rawlinson was speaking at the Select Committee on behalf of the Construction Leadership Council. A longer version of this article was published by Building on 22 February 2019

Simon Rawlinson

Partner - Head of Strategic Research and Insight +44 (0)20 7812 2319 Ask me a question
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