We talk exclusively to Mette Blackmore, group HR director for Acorn Property Group, about her role in the company and in depth about how the company currently recruits female personnel and its recruitment ambitions.
Hi Mette, please tell us about yourself, your career path and your current role.
I moved to London when I was 18 from my native Denmark, initially for six months but I then decided to settle here. I later married and now manage my role around two school-aged children.
I joined Acorn Property Group 17 years ago, originally in a marketing role, but after a couple of years I found myself taking up the human resources (HR) reigns after the previous manager left.
At the time, Acorn was a small company with around 15 team members. Since then, Acorn has gone from strength to strength and the company has grown from that small initial team to five regional offices in London, Cornwall, Bristol, Cardiff and Hampshire. I now look after over 100 team members and together we have delivered over 100 successful residential and mixed-use developments throughout these regions.
I never envisaged working in HR, but I really enjoy my role and supporting people to find their right career path within the company. I am especially proud when we have people celebrating their five-, 10- and 15-year anniversaries, knowing that I have been there along the way.
With Acorn continuing to succeed and expand, I felt it was time to formalise my HR experience and expand my skill base, so, sponsored by Acorn, I undertook my CIPD accreditation in 2016. Following this I was appointed group HR director and I am responsible for the implementation of Acorn’s human resource strategies and objectives across all of our regional offices, including recruitment, staff training and development, health and welfare, employee relations and retentions and I continually work to ensure that Acorn lead as a proactive, flexible and responsible employer.
What is Acorn Property Group’s current policy on recruitment for different roles?
Acorn has successfully grown by ensuring we have the right people in place to drive the business forward and deliver – our ‘different by design’ ethos is incredibly important to our success. We are fortunate that our reputation as an innovative company and flexible employer, which supports the growth and development of our team, means we attract high-calibre individuals who share our passion, vision and values.
With continued growth throughout our regions we employ various strategies to ensure we identify the best candidates who will fit our business. This could be through direct referrals from professional or personal relationships, from candidates seeking us out via LinkedIn or our website or through advertising within the industry.
We also work with schemes such as Women Returners, who support professional women returning to work after extended career breaks. This way, we make the most of the extensive talent pool available to us and have built an experienced, professional team.
The housebuilding industry is trying to attract more female candidates – what do you think has brought about the current shortfall and what is being done to resolve it?
Historically, trade unions and engineering institutions actively excluded women from pursuing careers in construction. Post-war, although women had gained the skills and experience to take up construction work, the majority were refused entry into the industry. It was only with the introduction on the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s, and the inclusion of women into trade unions and the establishment of working parties for women, such as WICAG (Women in Construction Advisory Group), that women have been encouraged to join the industry.
However, there is still a perception that construction is a male-dominated industry, which is reflected in the low numbers of women found in construction. Recent research by the NHBC Foundation, CIOB and The Smith Institute estimate that around 13% of the construction workforce are women, only a slight increase from 9% in 2002/2003.
The industry is facing a skills shortage as its current workforce reaches retirement and fewer young people are taking up skilled trades. There are now a lot of positive initiatives in place in schools, colleges and across the industry aiming to counter the outdated perceptions of construction, attract new talent and offer an attainable and rewarding career path.
Acorn is working to educate local schools and colleges, as well as pupils, on the wide range of careers on offer in construction. We have teamed up with a number of initiatives to promote and support women entering the industry and we strive to ensure that our HR policies are fair and inclusive, making us an attractive employer to women.
Are there different ways to approach youngsters and women looking to return to work as their children grow older?
I think the key approach to recruiting young people and women is to identify the obstacles that may prevent them from entering construction and making their goals more attainable. For both, career development and progression are incredibly important, and for women especially, the ability to work flexibly can be a determining factor.
At Acorn we have worked hard to create an environment that encourages our staff to flourish, and we support all our staff in building their skills through additional training, as well as nurturing the hands-on experience they gain daily. Providing a supportive and flexible working environment definitely helps to attract more young people and women to the industry as there is a clear career path which will benefit them, and us, in the long run.
Acorn has a good proportion of female employees – what sort of roles are they in?
We are really proud of the fact that around 45% of our employees are female. Our board of directors includes our chairman, group managing director and funding director, and group sales director, who are all women. We have other senior roles that are also held by women, such as our accounts director and my own role as group HR director.
We have recently appointed an in-house solicitor through the Women’s Returners scheme, as well as appointing a new female development and asset manager. We have female project and development managers throughout our regional construction and land teams, and other management positions all held by women. We also have a high proportion of women working in our sales and marketing teams as well as in administrative and support roles.
Has a generally more flexible approach to, for example, working hours and home working, made the industry more appealing to women?
Removing some of the barriers that have prevented women from pursuing a career in construction will always have the benefit of making it more appealing. With the current skills gap, employers are recognising that offering flexible working patterns will make them more attractive to a huge range of potential skilled employees.
At Acorn, we pride ourselves on our flexible approach, something that has been one of our core values for decades. We recognise that for those women who have commitments such as young families, being flexible will allow them to pursue careers that once may have been difficult to obtain. Flexible working can include home working, or delayed start or earlier finish times to accommodate school drop off and pickups.
We also offer compressed hours, for instance five days into four, as well as job shares. This not only benefits our female team members, but all of our staff. With our flexible approach we have created a work environment where our staff our happy, they achieve exceptional standards of work and are committed to Acorn and our vision, which is why we have such a high staff retention rate.
Are there areas where you’d like to see more female candidates?
We have worked hard at Acorn to build a professional, experienced team. As such, we have a number of excellent project managers and coordinators, land managers and development managers in what was viewed predominantly as a male-dominated industry. There are some great initiatives throughout the industry at the moment, looking to close the skills gap and attract a more diverse workforce.
It would be great to see more women taking on roles in engineering, construction or on site. There is still a massive shortage of woman taking up direct construction roles, such as electricians, plumbers or joiners.
One way we are helping to combat this is by working with Constructing Excellence South West on its Adopt a School programme. Engaging youngsters early on to combat the negative perceptions of construction, and to educate them about the array of career paths available to them in construction, is vital to promoting more women into construction and combating the skills gap we are currently facing.