With huge pressure on the construction industry to build new homes and infrastructure, at the same time that it has experienced a loss of skills and labour, the Chartered Institute of Building is determined to radically improve diversity among entrants to the sector. Mark Harrison, equality, diversity and inclusion champion at the CIOB tells Personnel Today about the challenge he’s been set.
PT: What methods are you using to attract more diverse entrants into the construction industry?
MH: We recognise it is essential that we address the ever-increasing skills/people gap and have been working on initiatives with a broad range of members and other key stakeholders. Launched in November 2021 our Special Report & Charter on Diversity & Inclusion sets out the business case and provides international examples of best practice for employers to learn from. The charter is essentially five commitments that provide a step-by-step guide to embedding and promoting inclusive employment practices with the aim of attracting diverse entrants into the sector. These commitments are purposefully tailorable to any size of organisation and environment to facilitate maximum participation.
We are just trying to ensure that the sector is genuinely fair and meritocratic”
We have also established an employers forum for signatories of the Charter to discuss opportunities for change and solutions to common challenges. In addition, in April 2022 we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with our sister professional membership institutes (ICE, RIBA RICS, RTPI, & LI) agreeing to work together over the next three years to promote a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming built environment sector. Collectively representing over 350,000 professionals, we intend to use our influence to improve diversity and promote inclusive practices. Our top priorities for focus include fixing the broken pipeline between increasingly diverse students and employment in professional roles.
We also have our excellent and diverse CIOB Tomorrow’s Leaders cohort that is now more than 40% female – quite a positive statistic when women only make up around 14% of the current workforce and perhaps providing some hope for the future. We’re developing educational resources for our CIOB Academy that will support employers and managers in
the sector to embed inclusive practices.
Equality, diversity and inclusion
In the near future, we will be launching a new CIOB EDI Ambassador role so that members can contribute to this agenda in their hubs and regional committees. In September we will be adding EDI awards to our annual presentations and in November will see our first international conference on EDI with a focus on practical advice on what makes the necessary changes happen. And all that is just a taster.
Will new tech, and the need to make construction greener, enable the industry to attract diverse talent?
That’s a good question. It’s very clear that a major impetus behind the push for a more diverse and inclusive sector is the increasingly apparent skills shortage and estimated demand for a further 250,000 employees in the sector by 2026. Of course, many of the new roles will be utilising new tech and will be focused on the sustainability agenda, retrofitting and reusing resources. Such new jobs may encourage a more diverse range of people to consider a career in the sector, but it’s by no means a given as its reputation needs to improve. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence tells us that young people coming into the sector want to work for employers that have a visible commitment to delivering social value, to the green agenda and to promoting diversity and inclusion. This generation will, of course, increasingly become clients and they will expect such commitments from companies they engage. So employers who ignore the D&I agenda risk losing out on two fronts – addressing their skills gap and on potential contracts as a result.
Have you encountered resistance within the sector?
I have been promoting diversity and inclusion in the housing, charity, higher education and the built environment sectors for several years now, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I have encountered resistance at times. But I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm for change in the sector. In my time at CIOB, I have faced less resistance in the built environment than in other sectors. My perception is that there is an understanding that change is needed, and, at risk of generalising, there appears to be a positive ‘can-do’ approach to getting things done and moving on to the next challenge. So that’s a positive.
I have been busy delivering presentations promoting D&I to businesses across the country over the last 12 months. On two occasions it has been reported to me that potential participants have declined stating that they are not interested in this agenda. This was, of course, disappointing, but they represent a small minority compared to the hundreds of representatives of business who did attend and participate in discussions.
There is an understanding that change is needed, and a positive ‘can-do’ approach to getting things done”
In some senses, the challenge has almost been the inverse as we are seeing so many people coming forward with different initiatives that the challenge is to harness all the enthusiasm and energy and avoid duplication. This is one of the main reasons we signed the MoU with the other professional institutes that I described earlier.
I do see signs that the business case has been accepted and that the time has come for change in the sector.
In the public mind the construction industry is a male-oriented, old-fashioned, possibly sexist environment. How much of your work is carried out countering this perception?
Changing perceptions is a real challenge – but that’s absolutely part of what we are trying to do. All of the actions we are taking on this agenda aim to promote the changes to the workforce demographic and workplace culture so that we can say that the sector is genuinely welcoming and inclusive to all. This will take some time of course, but it is a crucial task if we are to attract diverse people into the industry and address the people shortage.
We would not be focusing on the D&I agenda if we thought that all the arguments have been won. There’s much still to do”
There has been a big blow to women’s rights in the US and some MPs in the UK speak out against women’s rights and against the diversity agenda. Do you feel your role is also a political one, seeking to educate people, or have the arguments largely been won already?
The role of an EDI practitioner is at times “small p” political and we deal with issues that raise strong opinions. But my role is not that of an activist. It is my job to highlight the fact that an equitable and inclusive approach is in their personal and professional interests – no matter what their individual characteristics are – including straight middle-aged white men like myself, (our recent focus on addressing the poor mental health of many men in the sector is a good example of this).
Education is an important element of course, and we aim to provide our members with the tools to make the most of the opportunities offered by diverse teams and inclusive service delivery. But it shouldn’t be contentious. After all, we are just trying to ensure that the sector is genuinely fair and meritocratic. We are not arguing for special treatment for any particular group or characteristic. And we would not be focusing on the D&I agenda if we thought that all the arguments have been won. There is still much to do.
Name some successes of diversity policies in construction over the past couple of years.
Our Special Report & Charter on Diversity & Inclusion contains an excellent set of examples of best practice from around the globe. And while it would be very difficult to pick out the best, as so much good work is in evidence, I would certainly highlight the Respect in the Workplace and Good to Go initiatives by Willmott Dixon, designed to promote a welcoming workplace for everyone, Scape’s work on ensuring a consideration of D&I is in the procurement process for their supply chain and Canadian contractor EllisDon working with trade unions to eradicate racism form their sites. Your readers can see many more excellent examples and the five key commitments in our Charter at ciob.org