Women are the key to filling skills gaps

The Equal Opportunities Commission has identified a major source of skills that can help out the construction, engineering and IT sectors – women.

Employers in the construction, engineering, IT and plumbing industries need to recruit more women if they are to overcome critical skills shortages. Likewise, the childcare industry needs to attract more men to plug its skills gap. To do this, these industries will need to improve their recruitment and retention practices and address their image problems with the next generation of workers.

So says the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) following the first phase of its investigation, Plugging Britain’s skills gap: challenging gender segregation in training and work.

Caroline Slowcock, chief executive at the EOC, says HR professionals in these industries need to ensure their recruitment, retention and equal opportunity policies provide the right culture and image. She also believes it is important for women in male-dominated industries to have strong female role models when they enter the profession.

“Mentoring is very useful for this if you have women in your company already,” she said.

Only 1 per cent of the construction workforce is female, yet the industry is facing a massive skills shortage. According to the Construction Industry Training Board, the sector needs to recruit and retain more than 74,000 new people every year for the next five years.

The IT industry fares a little better, with a 20 per cent female workforce. But Terry Watts, chief operating officer at the Government’s Sector Skills Council for the industry, E-skills UK, said that numbers were steadily dropping.

“It has been declining by roughly 1 per cent every year for the past 15 years,” he said.

The EOC research shows that the Modern Apprenticeship scheme needs to be overhauled, as it is entrenching traditional recruitment patterns and is not attracting more women into male-dominated sectors. In engineering, for example, only 6 per cent of people taking a Foundation Modern Apprenticeship are female. Women make up 8 per cent of the existing workforce.

Slowcock admitted that there have been a variety of initiatives to increase the number of women entering these industries, but that the message was not reaching the right people or at the right time.

The IT industry has launched numerous high profile drives to attract more women into the profession, with little success. The problem is, according to both Slowcock and Watts, that stereotypes start young.

“Our research shows that stereotypes begin at around age 13,” said Watts. E-skills UK now runs initiatives such as ‘Computer Clubs for Girls’, which is aimed at trying to interest 10-13 year-olds in IT before they dismiss it as a career option.

Another problem, identified by Pat McMullen, national strategy manager at British Gas, was that recruitment advertising was failing to reach a female audience. As a result, the company has started advertising in publications such as Best, Chat and the Daily Mirror, all of which have big female readerships.

British Gas also took part in a Government welfare-to-work programme, called ‘Ambition: Energy’, and through this and other schemes the company has been able to double its female workforce in the past three years.

“But, at just over 1 per cent, it is still a small amount,” admitted McMullen.

The next phase of the EOC’s investigation, due this autumn, will look in more depth at how young people make career choices and how employers could improve their recruitment practices.


Case study
Durkan builds a case for diversity

The construction industry has a huge skills crisis, yet only 1 per cent of its workforce is female. Construction company, Durkan, decided to overhaul its recruitment and workplace practices a few years ago to make a career at the company more attractive to women.

It appointed a community liaison officer, Paul McCrea, who is responsible for ensuring that the strategy for recruiting and retaining women works.

The board of directors has endorsed the initiative, which includes a zero-tolerance policy on sexist behaviour. This means that any subcontractors who behave inappropriately are removed from the site.

“We have only had one incident and that person was dismissed immediately,” said McCrea. “If it had been one of our own employees, we would obviously have gone through our own code of conduct. We also don’t allow any sexist pictures or magazines on site.”

Durkan requires subcontractors to comply with its equal opportunities policy and offers flexible working practices. Since implementing these policies, the company has increased its female workforce by 100 per cent. From 1999, it has employed about 150 women on site and has 10 female employees – 15 per cent of its 70-strong workforce. It is also taking on its first female Modern Apprenticeship student this year.


Source: IRS Employment Review

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