Britain is way down in the league table of countries who have encouraged a higher percentage of women into onsite roles, but Kevin O’Connor tells us here about how Durkan is trying hard to tackle the issue and get more talented women into its team.
Please tell us about your role at Durkan and what has taken you there.
As head of social responsibility and inclusion at Durkan, it’s my job to make sure we have a wide social value offering. For me, that means going beyond setting up training and apprenticeships, it means working with communities to make a tangible difference.
I had a varied career before joining Durkan. I started out in the roofing business with my dad before spending a long time working in social housing for local authorities. I also spent time in the voluntary sector, helping those with drug and alcohol addiction. So, there wasn’t really a formal career path, but I think these experiences gave me a level of empathy, work and life experience that are essential to carrying out my job successfully.
Is Durkan successful in recruiting the best apprentices and trainees it needs and what’s the secret?
Durkan has a very successful approach to recruiting trainees and apprentices. For us, it’s about discovering young people with lots of potential and then nurturing them to make sure they have the skills and confidence to shine throughout their career in the industry.
Often that means that when we meet people, they may not have the qualifications needed to join an apprenticeship scheme straight away. Durkan offers trainee to apprenticeship programmes that help get people to where they need to be.
We work with young people from very diverse communities and with really different backgrounds. Lots of them have never even considered a career in construction or, if they have, just don’t think they can do it. Joining as a trainee and working towards an apprenticeship is a great way to build confidence and get to grips with a career in housebuilding.
Taking the time to invest in the next generation of housebuilders in this way has proven worthwhile for us and produced some real success stories.
For example, we took on an apprentice, Dylan, four years ago. He wasn’t in work or education when we met him but through his hard work and our support he’s now a trainee site manager and is mentoring other apprentices.
Are there key elements to nurturing and retaining staff?
Patience is definitely key; a lot of our apprentices haven’t experienced work culture before and it can take time to settle into this. Another thing I always bear in mind is that one size doesn’t fit all. The same approach doesn’t work for everyone; some of our trainees need more encouragement and support than others.
It’s something that we don’t always see in the wider industry, but I think it’s really important that we make more of an allowance for difference if we’re to retain the best candidates. I’m pleased to say we do this at Durkan. Our retention rate is high as a result and nearly every one of our apprentices gets a job at the end of their course.
Diversity and inclusion are big challenges for the housebuilding industry – what do you think is the best way forward?
There are some terrific training initiatives out there that are recruiting diverse talent. However, I do think the industry in general has a way to go. The number of women working on construction sites is less than 2% and the UK has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe.
The stories we hear of women who have succeeded in the sector are fantastic and should be celebrated. But the reality is that they’re still largely an ‘exception to the rule’ and often highlight the mountain that lots of women are having to climb.
We need to normalise the idea of women in housebuilding. And that requires numbers – female traineeships that introduce far higher proportions of women to the sector could offer a solution. But we need to find ways to encourage them into the industry in the first place. And that goes for men too. Given the skills shortage we’re facing, we need to attract as many people as possible.
This requires an approach that targets a much younger demographic. Engaging with primary school age children, getting them excited about construction and familiar with the wealth of career options available is essential. Reaching out to young people when they’re 16 to 18 has its merits, but more often than not, the GCSE and A-Level choices they’ve made will already have started to shape their future career path.
Engaging with younger children takes more than occasional visits to schools though. We should concentrate our efforts on a smaller pool of schools but focus on more consistent engagement. That way there’s more chance young people will take their positive impressions of the industry with them throughout their education and may genuinely consider it as a career choice in the future.
Is there something we can learn from other countries, or other industries, to achieve the goals you’re aiming for?
For me, countries like Germany are useful role models. They value trades, technical skills and engineering equally alongside other professions. In the UK, I think we’re often guilty of thinking of these skills as a ‘plan B’ option. That should absolutely not be the case. The skills involved in housebuilding are desperately needed in this country and are something young people should aspire to.
I think the learning and skill involved in building used to be valued more highly a few generations ago – master builders’ apprentices would often train for as long as five years. We need to make sure today’s young housebuilders feel pride in their profession and that their communities recognise the enormous skill that goes into them.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering housebuilding for a career?
The CITB has recently launched its own dedicated careers advice website, Go Construct, which is worth looking at. It gives interested parties an insight into construction and all of the options available whether that be in trades, technical or the many professional occupations that are essential to housebuilding.
If you’re really interested in joining the industry, find out who your local housebuilders and trade bodies are and get in touch. Ask about opportunities for work experience, a meeting or even just college advice. It’s a great way to make local contacts and most companies will be impressed by being contacted directly by someone interested in a career in housebuilding.
It’s this kind of approach that will really separate you from the pack and maximise your chances of finding long-term employment in the sector.