Women where art thou?

At a time when the skills shortage proves to be a big challenge for the industry and young adults are considering the next step in their career, Joanne Holmes asks where are all the girls?

The idea that you can't be 'feminine' in the construction industry must be demolished and 'women in construction' are not necessarily females wearing hard hats – this was the take home message at a three-day careers advice event I attended in Lincolnshire recently.

Standing up in front of 160 year six children is a rarity in my job as a manager at Lindum, but I was delighted to take the opportunity to speak to potential employees of the future at Boston College.

My message was clear: 'the construction industry is not for girls...and it's not for boys...it's for everyone. We all benefit from the new schools, houses, hospitals, roads, airports, football stadiums and leisure centres built by the industry, so why shouldn't we all be involved in creating them?'

The construction industry is crying out for young adults who are interested and passionate about working in the sector, which I explained isn’t just about donning a hard hat. Anyone interested in art and design can consider architecture, if they are good at maths, quantity surveying or engineering may be a good avenue and people who are good with their hands and like making things could try a craft skill, while problem-solvers may wish to think about site management or planning. The best thing about construction is it’s a vibrant and exciting industry to work in.

Lindum is part of the East Midlands Property Alliance which runs an innovative training academy across the East Midlands. Young people are receiving training in key skills such as building, joinery, site management and surveying to drive the next generation of construction workers – it’s opportunities like this we need to be shouting about to make sure we help to sustain the industry.

At the construction taster event almost 500 young people gained hands on experience in a variety of construction-related jobs: bricklaying, plastering, joinery, decorating and technical skills such as plant vehicle maintenance, quantity surveying, planning and also professional skills from The Institute of Civil Engineers, bridge building and land surveying.

At the end of the day each activity leader chose one student who had impressed them the most. Out of 20 activities, 18 of the best achievers on day one were girls. Brilliant - job done!

The following two days attracted year eight, nine and ten students who were mostly young men - where were all the girls?

We all grow and we all change, I understand that, but it made me wonder… why did I stick with it? At age eight when my parents said a Sindy House was too expensive, I built my own. I knew at 14 that my future would involve technology. I did work experience placement at a Rover garage and my (female) physics teacher had explained engineering to me as 'practical physics' and I knew it was for me. A WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) summer school at the University of Bath cemented my interest and I was hooked.

My mum worked in the Construction Industry since I was ten (as a PA to a finance director) and was involved with many areas of a growing family Construction Group. It was always in the background for me as I heard stories about her work at home. Key people in my life (parents, grandparents, teachers) as I grew up allowed me to follow my 'hobbies': problem solving, maths, making things - by no means a unique set of interests.

So how do we keep the girls engaged? I would urge any parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles reading this to remind the young people in their family of the enthusiasm they had in year 6 and find a way to follow it through when peer pressure gets in the way.

At a recent Women in Construction event I listened to Janet Becket from Carbon Saver UK talk about her career in the industry and she put forward the idea that images of women in hard hats are unhelpful, but if you google 'women in construction' that's what you see. She, like me, hardly ever wears a hard hat in her role today. Most of her work is carried out in smart offices, at a computer, in design meetings with other professionals.

I have been asked by male colleagues how to recruit more women, I have always struggled to answer because I just knew it was right for me. Now I know how I will answer, I will suggest they attend the next event they see titled 'Women in Construction' and join in with the discussion. Back to my previous point, ‘it's not for girls, it's not for boys, it's for everyone’. And that goes for recruitment too.

Can procurement teams influence the gender balance? I think so, by keeping it local. I have been a construction and STEM ambassador for 17 years but today, most of my colleagues with families would prefer to be able to work close to home which is especially true for women with young children.

By choosing local contractors through dedicated frameworks like East Midlands Property Alliance who have a commitment to local recruitment, we can help to make our industry a more attractive place for women to work.

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