Foundations for change

The business

The UK’s construction industry employs around 1.4 million people. Over the past decade, gender equality in the industry has actually become worse. Figures from the Department of Trade and Industry show that in 1992, the industry employed 184,000 women and 1,662,000 men. Ten years later, the number of male employees had risen to 1,773,000, but the figure for women remained the same.

So, while women make up 48% of the UK workforce, they account for only 10% in the construction industry. Meanwhile, the industry itself needs to attract 76,000 new recruits each year just to keep up with demand.

The challenge

Thomas Vale Construction is one of the UK’s leading construction companies, operating throughout the UK in diverse sectors ranging from housing to healthcare, and transport to education.

Forum Training is wholly owned by Thomas Vale and provides training for new entrants to the industry. It acts as a way in to the industry in general, as well as providing trained recruits for Thomas Vale.

In early 2004, Forum Training applied for European Social Funding (ESF) to help encourage women into the construction industry. Offering the chance to gain an NVQ, the scheme placed women on the Worcester Community Housing Associa-tion project, refurbishing the kitchens and bathrooms of around 6,000 properties.

“We were primarily looking for women returners,” says Jayne Sloane, managing director of Forum Training. “We did a big blanket advertising campaign in all the local free papers in Worcester and advertised in the four local estates where the work was going to be carried out.”

Emphasising the potential for a career in the construction industry, the initiative attracted 50 applicants. They were then whittled down to five, who started working towards a streamlined NVQ in kitchen fitting in October 2004.

Attracting women into these positions was only half the battle – they then had to be trained.

“Because Thomas Vale doesn’t directly employ labour, we had to work with sub-contractors to give the women the experience they needed,” says Sloane. “We didn’t know what kind of a response we’d get as they’re paid for the number of kitchens they produce. They could have taken the attitude that showing someone what to do would slow them down. But in reality, they have been very supportive.”

Another hurdle was that if women with young children were to be attracted to the industry, flexible working hours had to be introduced.

“Traditionally, the industry has had the attitude that if you can’t be here to work all day, then you’re of no use to us,” notes Sloane. “We’ve had to rethink that. There are valuable jobs women can do – it’s just a question of making them accessible.”

Some of the ESF finance was set aside to fund childcare vouchers. However, attracting women from within the neighbourhoods where the work was being carried out also reduced the issue of travelling to and from childcare facilities, says Sloane.

The outcome

Four of the original five female entrants are set to complete their NVQs by the end of this month. The only woman to leave the course had previously been working on her own barn conversion, and left to continue in that kind of work. All the remaining women have been offered further employment within the industry -some with the sub-contractor with whom they have been training.

Aside from the success of attracting women into construction, Sloane notes an increase in female workers could help the company in its housing association work.

“They are working in quite a high ethnic minority area, and it can be difficult leaving men to work in Asian women’s homes,” she says. “If we let women work there, it might not be so much of an issue.”

Employee perspective

Lynn Allsopp was attracted to the Forum Training scheme because it offered her something different. Having been in the armed forces, and then getting only clerical work on leaving, the chance to do something practical held great appeal.

“There was some Mickey-taking at first, when we were working with the men on site,” she says. “But once they realise what you can do, there aren’t any problems.

“As a woman, you have to work a bit harder to be accepted, but as long as you are not fazed by that, they will see you are capable,” says Allsopp.

Enjoying the diversity of the programme, Allsopp has been offered a job by the sub-contracting company. Alternatively, there’s a chance she could work for Forum Training in managing the next phase of the women’s training initiative.

Learning points for HR

Sloane is planning to extend the scheme over the next year, with another application for ESF to support an increased number of places for a wider training programme.

“There was an advantage to only having a small number on the course this time, as we could work out any problems as they came up,” says Sloane. “Now that we can get it right from day one, we can advertise more widely and get more people interested.”

The next phase should see training schemes extended up to two years, including trades such as plastering, painting and decorating.

“We already have some people interested,” says Sloane.

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