Women and children first! Housebuilders need more diversity in workforce

New research from the NHBC Foundation warns the UK’s housebuilding industry must do more to attract women and young people to avoid workforce crisis. The gender and age profile of the housebuilding sector warns of a significant shortfall in workers caused by an over-reliance on an ageing, male-dominated workforce and potential restrictions to migrant labour following Brexit.

With estimates showing that the sector needs to recruit 700,000 more people to replace those retiring or moving on, plus an extra 120,000 if the government’s aim to build one million new homes by 2020 is to be achieved, the NHBC Foundation report calls on government and housebuilders to recognise the seriousness of the problem and to act now to address the shortfall.

The report, based on data from the Office of National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey and detailed interviews with housebuilding companies and senior industry commentators, provides valuable insights into age and gender diversity within the house-building sector.

Just 12% of the UK’s housebuilding workforce is female, the majority working in secretarial or administration jobs, with less than 4% having a skilled trade role. The report also finds that young people, especially girls, are put off working in the industry because of the negative, stereotypical image of a male-dominated housebuilding industry.

Some of the major challenges for the industry in attracting women and young people include:

  • Working conditions – the belief that all work in the industry takes place outdoors in all weathers;
  • Fears of a sexist environment – concerns about the language and behaviour of male workers on site;
  • Poor hiring and recruitment practices – over reliance on gender-biased recruitment literature and advertising and over-use of personal contacts and networks to recruit workers;
  • Skills shortages – cycles of recession and growth mean that many skilled workers leave the industry during downturns, which has a knock-on effect of reducing the talent pool;
  • Outsourcing of site staff – a large proportion of on-site trade roles are managed by sub-contractors, and therefore housebuilding companies themselves have little say on who is actually working on site.

One of the main findings of the report is that women are still seriously under-represented in skilled, technical and managerial roles in housebuilding. It identifies a number of challenges that need to be tackled by the sector, and the broader construction industry, that are deep-rooted and endemic, such as ongoing stereotyping and antiquated recruitment practices.

Uninformed and outdated careers advice in schools is also failing to make all young people aware of the variety of jobs and roles on offer, with advisers unable to promote effectively the many attractive career opportunities in the sector.

Chi Onwurah MP said, “Having worked as an electrical engineer for two decades I know the importance of achieving greater diversity in male-dominated professions. Like NHBC, I believe more can be done to promote opportunities for women in the housebuilding sector and inspire the sector’s next generation of female leaders. It’s hugely encouraging to see NHBC recognise that diversity isn’t an optional add-on but a key measure of success in the modern world.”

Commenting on her experiences as a woman working in the house-building industry, Redrow Homes’ site manager and 2016 NHBC Pride in the Job Seal of Excellence winner Zara Fairman said, “It’s a real privilege to be able to show that it’s not just a man’s world and that women can do well in the housebuilding industry. It’s also important to know that you don’t necessarily have to be from a trade, or engineering background – there are lots of transferable skills needed for this job.”

The report has a number of recommendations to help government and companies tackle the problem including:

Top level/government

  • Recognition and awareness – government must acknowledge that the current lack of diversity is a serious issue that results in the industry missing out on talent;
  • Sustained investment – government and housing developers should commit to continued investment to sustain the talent pool even in times of economic downturn;
  • Investment in career guidance – careers education in schools must be prioritised to ensure that young people (and adults throughout their careers) are given impartial, accurate advice to guide them in decision making for their futures.

Companies and Human Resources teams

  • Greater collaboration – companies must work together to provide a consistent approach to tackling diversity;
  • Reflection and learning – vital lessons can be learned from other industries and organisations that have successfully begun to tackle diversity issues, e.g. the British military
  • Funding opportunities – initiatives such as apprenticeship academies need further investment to increase their breadth of reach;
  • Development of social media – making more effective use of social media to market careers in housebuilding effectively;
  • Promotion of women – to highlight female success and inspire the next generation of female leaders in housebuilding, companies should be encouraged to promote more women into senior positions and non-executive board roles;
  • Encouragement and support for retraining – to capitalise on talent and loyalty within their business and to promote career progression, companies should consider offering to support current staff, in particular women, to retrain in trade or technical roles;
  • Mentoring young people already within the sector – companies should use experienced workers as mentors to give young people role models that they can easily relate to and who demonstrate progression and success.
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