The construction and engineering industry faces a considerable threat: namely that the workforce is ageing, yet not enough young people are joining to take their place.
In January, the Greater London Authority released data which shows that 96 per cent of higher-level apprenticeships in construction or engineering in London during 2015/16 were taken by men.
While recent findings from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) indicate that 92 per cent of UK engineers are men and 94 per cent are white.
If we are to succeed in securing the industry’s future and closing the skills gap, there is a need to look further afield when recruiting, and seek out a diverse, dynamic workforce.
The industry’s reputation and perception among the public has been highlighted as one reason for the ongoing lack of diversity, and efforts are being made to improve this.
Carolyn Mason, ECA’s Head of Education and Training explains that ‘too often, the exciting, innovative projects that our sector delivers go unheralded because they’re only one element of a construction project... people who could have careers in engineering contracting don’t consider it because they aren’t aware of the breadth and depth of what’s on offer’.
Sneha Doshi, ECA’s Senior Employee Relations Advisor, adds that ‘people from minority backgrounds have parents who emigrated to this country but who were originally from middle-class backgrounds... they’d rather their children went into what they see as more ‘white-collar’ jobs.’
Rob Driscoll, Director of Legal and Commercial at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), says that assumptions about physical limitations or difficulties with health and safety regulations are deterrents for those with disabilities.
However, emerging success stories are helping to change the perception of the industry. One such role model is Sam Jones, a JTL ambassador who works for ECA member-organisation Melvin John. Sam was selected to represent the UK in the JIB’s Overseas Apprenticeship Exchange Program to New York City in 2015. She has since represented the UK at the BWI Women’s International Global Conference in Nepal and recently spoke at a diversity seminar at the London Southbank University, organised by the ECA and BESA.
Since the start of this programme, the number of female applicants to apprenticeships managed by JTL has doubled, and JTL’s Equality and Diversity Officer, Yasmin Damree-Ralph, says that ambassadors from BAME backgrounds are now also involved and hoping to replicate the success of their female colleagues.
Driscoll says that work with the charity Blind in Business provided insight into employment of the visually impaired in the construction industry. ‘For a long time, the construction industry wasn’t considered an option for the visually impaired,’ he explains. ‘But there is an increasing reliance on programming and computer work, and the development of software makes this work possible for those who might have difficulty on a construction site.’ There are also government grants available to cover any additional costs to the employer.
Driscoll suggests that in order to overcome these deep-rooted issues, diversity needs to be put to employers as a business case, and Mason says that the ECA and TESP are considering a certificate scheme by which businesses are awarded gold, silver or bronze depending on their commitment to recruiting a more diverse workforce.
However we plan to tackle this, the need to close the skills gap should remain at the forefront of our minds; with exciting new projects and developments in technology adding to the already growing interest in the industry, we must take advantage of this new, diverse talent pool and to help ensure a positive future for the industry.