Our industry has changed radically over the last century in terms of what we build and how we build it. However, the make-up of the workforce in the construction industry has not moved at the same pace.
A UKCG survey of 15 major contractors in 2014 showed that women make up only 15% of employees in the construction industry and only 11% of people who are engaged directly in construction-related activity from tender stage to building completion.
The survey also showed that those who identify themselves as being from a BME background make up only 7% of the workforce, while people of BME origin make up 15% of the total British population. These are just the statistics we measure; there are many more factors that we do not monitor.
So construction is clearly not an industry that reflects the general population. However, we will need 182,000 more people by 2018 to fill new jobs in the industry according to the Chartered Institute of Building.
The industry is an ageing one: 19% of UK construction workers are over 55 and will retire in five to ten years, according to the Office for National Statistics. So what’s our plan to attract and retain people, from all parts of the population, to replace the ageing workforce, and to fill the knowledge void with skills and entrepreneurship?
We currently have five distinct generations working together, each with competing ideas and expectations. Given the proportion of our current workforce that is aged 55 and over, it’s understandable that our current culture reflects the norms of this group, rather than being focussed on the requirements and expectations of younger generations of employees. But attracting these younger generations is essential for the future of our industry and the UK economy. Construction accounts for 2.1 million jobs (6.3% of total UK employment) and contributes about 6.5% of total GDP.
Construction needs a cultural revolution to keep up with these challenges. This industry should be powering the whole UK out of a decade of economic quicksand. That won’t happen if we are stuck in a cultural quagmire.
So how do we shift the culture? Only by being more fair, more inclusive and more respectful to people from different backgrounds, can we become more attractive to people we have not included or employed in the past. We also need to recognise that the people who we have traditionally attracted into the industry - young white men - also want to see these values come to the fore.
Gen Ys (people born after 1980) and millennials (people born in the run up to 2000) do not view a career as something that necessarily goes upwards and or as a continuous path. Half of Gen Ys have spent less than three years with any one company. Whereas in our industry, it’s often been the case that people stay with one contractor for their entire career.
Gen Y people love flexibility and freedom, so the conventions of a traditional workplace are alien to them. They expect to have multiple and flexible opportunities, they don’t like or understand hierarchy, and they are digital natives, at ease with and intuitive about technology. Gen Y’s attitudes are very open-minded.
These younger generations of employees also have no hesitation in stating their opinion and in making an example of those they believe to have acted in an unjust way. If we get something wrong, including our image, and our approach to diversity and inclusion, they will spot it and they will let us (and anyone else who might listen) know about it.
With demand for workers vastly outstripping supply, what is the industry going to offer these generations to make a construction career attractive to them?
The industry still has a poor image when it comes to diversity and inclusion. How can we change the way we work to improve it and to attract the younger generations of employees? For example, do we really want an industry where it’s commonplace for meetings to be held at 7am? Do we really want trainee site managers to feel that they have to beat the project manager on to site every morning to prove their commitment? Do we want to be an industry that manages time or one that manages people?
Technology can help us address these issues and to make the way we work in construction more flexible. Web conferencing is already reducing the need to travel to every meeting. How will advances like building information modelling and 3D printing impact on how we communicate with people, the skills we need, our ability to be flexible in our working practices, for example?
And it’s important to recognise other valuable gains that can be achieved from changing our culture: greater diversity and inclusion improves business performance and the bottom line by stimulating innovation, breaking down groupthink and generally making workplaces happier, more engaged and more motivated environments for everyone.