Monday, October 10, 2016

Time to get serious about diversity

Malcolm Thomson, BESA President

Business leaders have savaged a proposed policy championed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd that would force UK employers to discriminate in favour of local job applicants against workers from overseas.

She unveiled her foreign workers’ proposal at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, but was on the defensive just 24-hours later in the face of widespread accusations of racism.

Adam Marshall from the British Chambers of Commerce said this could make having an international workforce a “badge of shame”. Other responses have labelled the plan that would force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ as “bizarre”; “damaging” and “divisive”.

Ms Rudd also proposed that foreign students would only be able to apply for places at UK universities if they chose “challenging” courses.

I do not want to join the chorus of abuse levelled at the Home Secretary and we all recognise that the government must try to address the issue of immigration following the ‘Brexit’ vote as well as the growing problem of youth unemployment.   I would also not presume to second guess how the issue of freedom of movement will be resolved in our negotiations with the EU.

However, surely at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty the last thing we need to do is narrow our recruitment options and unnecessarily close off an extremely valuable reservoir of skills.

Basing political policy on what could be construed as a form of race discrimination is incredibly unhelpful at any time, but it is particularly damaging now in the highly charged post-Brexit atmosphere.

Speaking for the building engineering services sector, we need the most diverse possible workforce we can get, which is why BESA is making diversity a top priority during my presidential year.

We are now a sponsor of the Women's Engineering Society (WES), which works to raise the profile of women in engineering and promotes the wide range of career opportunities available to women and girls.

Just 9% of registered UK engineers are female compared to 18% in Spain, 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden.  Out of every 100 people on construction sites just one is a woman and the UK sits 28th out of 28 in the EU league table for numbers of women in engineering.

65% of engineering employers say a shortage of female engineers is a threat to their business and companies are 15% more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

Ethnic minorities are also not adequately represented in our industry and we need to address the issue of improving accessibility for disabled people to our places of work. The male dominance in our sector feeds a ‘macho’ culture that, in too many cases, is not exactly welcoming to members of the LGBT community.

The adoption of modern methods of working and the emergence of Big Data and digital design techniques; along with the growing sophistication of building services technology, mean the sector desperately needs more talented young people with new skills and from a much wider background.

We keep talking about skills shortages and the way in which our industry is changing yet we continue to recruit from the same shrinking talent pool and using age-old stereotypes. Addressing a shortage by ‘poaching’ staff from each other is also a short-sighted, damaging and unsustainable tactic.

The image of building engineering sector remains trapped in the past, but we now enjoy access to some of the most cutting edge technologies available. The surge in demand for ‘smart’ buildings is creating a whole new avenue for ‘creative’ people who would never before have considered our industry as a potential career option.

So, how serious are we about diversity?

I would answer that with another question: How can we expect to grow our businesses and keep up with the pace of change without a fully diverse workforce?

Diversity seminar
BESA is taking this issue very seriously and the next stage in our programme for developing recruitment and engagement tools for members – and the industry at large – is our diversity seminar at London South Bank University (LSBU) on Tuesday, October 25 starting at 4pm.

It is being jointly organised with the ECA and will be chaired by our chief executive Paul McLaughlin. Speakers will include Danna Walker, chair of Architects for Change; Dawn Bonfield, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society; and BESA Scotland chair Simone Hart Sibbald. The event will be hosted by former CIBSE President Andy Ford, who is chair of the Construction Industry Council Diversity Panel and a lecturer at LSBU.

Our expert speakers will address the range of business benefits contractors can realise by recruiting a workforce from a diverse range of backgrounds. These include tackling skills shortages; gaining access to new expertise; and meeting the new diversity requirements contained in many project tenders.

Presented through a variety of panel discussions, keynotes and case studies, delegates at this free of charge event will receive advice on supporting workers with disabilities; discover ways to encourage and retain female engineers; and gain insight from recent industry success stories.  

Please come along to hear what others have to say and to have your own voice heard on this crucial issue for our sector.

For further information or to book your free place; visit our Eventbrite page.

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