Thursday, October 27, 2016

Improving diversity is vital for business success

The building engineering sector would gain significant commercial benefit if it improved the diversity of its workforce.

A seminar organised by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) and the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) at London South Bank University (LSBU) heard that diversity drives innovation and creativity, which makes for better and more successful businesses.

“More diverse companies react more quickly and creatively to big changes in their markets,” said Danna Walker founder of the social enterprise Built By Us and former chair of Architects for Change. “New people bring a different perspective and spot gaps that can lead to new business,” she added. “More diverse companies are more profitable.”

The industry is falling behind on all the major national demographics and, therefore, does not adequately reflect the society it serves, according to the panel of experts who addressed the seminar. The workforce is ageing and will struggle to replace those who are close to retirement; just 11% of the total construction industry workforce is female (in engineering specifically that falls to 9%); only 5% are registered disabled; and black/ethnic minorities make up just 5.7% of the sector.

A ‘macho culture’ can also make it hard for members of the LGBT community to feel welcome and people from different religious backgrounds often feel alienated and excluded. Inclusion is as important as diversity, the seminar heard.

“Companies perform better if they represent the world around them because that gives them a good understanding of their customers,” said Simone Hart Sibbald, chair of BESA Scotland. “A diverse workforce brings new ideas and fresh perspectives that help your company win work and broaden the customer base. It is good for corporate reputation and helps us attract and retain customers and employees.”

She also said diversity embraced a wide range of factors. “Look at your gender and age mix, but also ask if you are welcoming to people of different sexualities. Do you employ people from the military, for example, and is there a good mix of educational backgrounds; and previous work experiences?”

Ms Sibbald also said it was important that employers looked at the diversity in their supply chains to ensure they were working with a good range of partners.

“When people talk about innovation they are usually talking about technology, but it is really all about change led by people,” added Ms Walker.

She urged the industry to tap into the skills offered by ‘Generation Y’ – those aged between 18 and 34 who will make up 75% of the British workforce by 2020. However, they have very different expectations about work/life balance from previous generations and employers will need to be more flexible to attract them.

45% of that age group would choose flexibility over pay and they are digitally savvy so want to break away from the traditional 9-5 working pattern. They want to work for ‘progressive’ companies so addressing diversity and inclusion would improve the industry’s image – particularly among this age group.

Seminar chair Paul McLaughlin, chief executive of BESA, said taking a positive approach to diversity was a “key issue” for the Association and its members as it would give contractors access to vital new skills and help them comply with workplace equality laws.

“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.

“There is a lot to do and a lot to change, but we have already started that journey by becoming a corporate supporter of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and signing up to the Future of London diversity pledge backed by Mayor Sadiq Khan.”

Companies are also failing to exploit the deep pool of talent among the blind and partially sighted community, according to Jessica Luke and Dan Mitchell from the Blind in Business network, which has trained over 6,000 visually impaired people to take up careers in most business sectors.

They said employers were often surprised at how much people with poor eyesight could do. New technologies were opening up big opportunities in construction-related disciplines for people who don’t see well, they added.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach; as everyone’s needs and response to impairment is different,” said Ms Luke.  “We need to help employers become more comfortable about dealing with people with disabilities by creating opportunities for them to meet and understand each other.”

BESA President Malcolm Thomson said many small contractors, in particular, would welcome this kind of guidance. “This is such a large and complex issue – and we are not experts so find it hard to approach the subject and use the appropriate language. We also need to have a better understanding of what is and what is not appropriate for someone with a particular disability.”

Andy Ford, chair of the Construction Industry Council diversity committee, told the seminar that the industry needed to get better at gathering data on diversity. “It is hard to demonstrate if we are making any progress without the numbers, but it is clear that we need to have a multi-generational workforce and from a broader cross-section of the population – it’s a business necessity.”

Problems with “unconscious bias” where employers may favour recruits from their own background needs to be addressed at school and college where many pre-conceptions originate, the speakers agreed.

“We should set out our expectations and explain how the industry can be more professional both in how it treats women and how it includes people,” said Ms Walker. “There is still a strong social bias that means people often decide what you can do based on what you look like.”

For example, there is an assumption that women can’t be engineers and that men don’t want to be primary school teachers. However, a number of the speakers stressed that compelling companies to adopt more progressive diversity policies could be counter-productive – employers needed to believe in the concept.

“You can’t do this as a PR exercise because you won’t get any benefit,” said Jan Peters, past president of WES. “It shouldn’t be about complying with legal requirements, but about driving innovation and change in businesses.

“However, I think we should be quietly excited and optimistic because things are changing. People want to work for progressive companies and in a productive and positive environment that better reflects the world around them.”

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