Does construction and utilities need a perception reboot to attract a more diverse workforce?                 

Does construction and utilities need a perception reboot to attract a more diverse workforce?                 


This blog, by our new Head of HR – Karen Robinson, highlights how perception, language, imagery and stereotypes are barriers to greater diversity in the construction / utilities sectors.

It articulates the benefits of adopting a ‘disruptive’ mindset to recruit a broader cross section of the community – specifically women*. And explains how this has never been more vital due to the current industry skills shortages and competition with other sectors for recruits.

The blog leans on Karen’s experience as a leader in construction / utilities and on how her personal career journey is helping to inform her new role.

Reflecting on my utilities career – and why I never looked back…

In the late 90s, prior to joining the utilities sector, I worked in politics. I started in the Department of Health in Whitehall, before moving to 10 Downing Street. It was an interesting place to start and I came across lots of inspiring women – women running the country!

There are similarities in terms of a lack of female representation across lots of sectors, but working in government gave me the knowledge that there are inspirational women absolutely everywhere, we just need more visibility of them.

In 2011, I began my utilities career at a small contracting company. I was eased into the sector as my role was in process improvement – and I didn’t need to know anything about the industry to improve processes. The longer I was there, the more I felt comfortable with the fast-paced nature of utilities. You get sucked into it!

I went on to work at a water supply company and gas distribution network, before joining Energy Assets as Regional Operations Director to work with developers to provide multi-utility infrastructure. One day I could be out on site, talking to colleagues who were installing the infrastructure, the next meeting with developers to discuss the next scheme. It’s a cliché, but no two days were the same, and that’s what I loved!

The people who work in the industry thrive in the face of adversity, enjoy a challenge and love to learn. Most of all, the majority of people I come across are passionate about utilities as a subject and want to talk about it as much as possible. Particularly with the extensive innovation and change in government direction being front and centre on the news.

With each role I learnt so much – from qualifying in running a haulage business to being certified in construction site management. It’s extremely diverse and the development opportunities are endless.

I now apply all that knowledge in my current role at Energy Assets – which may seem like a strange move to some…

The domino effect of one bold move

I recently took the Head of HR role, and there was a lot of self-doubt and self-motivating going on beforehand as I don’t have a technical HR background. However, the more I researched and talked to HR professionals and other colleagues, the more I saw that it’s common for a non-technical person to lead the HR function – so I went for it!

One of the benefits of my Operations background is a real understanding of what our colleagues need from an HR function. And I’m delighted that this role gives me a more influential platform to encourage and embed diversity into our industry, and into Energy Assets. I know that it’s a bold move for the company to choose a non-HR person to lead the function, but I also know that by bringing along my operational experience, I’ll make a real difference.

Acknowledging our biggest challenge

Now that I’m involved in the wider recruitment piece across Energy Assets, I can definitely see the disparity between male and female applicants for our vacancies.

Not only is the country facing a shortage of applicants overall, it’s difficult to attract female applicants into utilities as an industry. Utilities is a growth industry and by recruiting more women, we’ll not only capitalise on that growth, but show women that there are options open to them that they may never have previously considered.

Mothers, female guardians and female carers face greater challenges in the workplace and disadvantages in achieving economic success, particularly as the pandemic set back progress. How can we attract those women into our industry – as an industry, we need to change and it’s never been more pressing to do so.

The energy sector’s transition to net zero shows that new green jobs will be concentrated in utilities, construction and manufacturing. These sectors are male dominated, as are the typical roles within them even in other sectors – men are therefore immediately better placed to take advantage of the new opportunities. If we do nothing, the gap between men and women in employment will increase. Our industry must build a future that better meets the needs of women and other marginalised groups in the workplace.

“There’s nobody like me”

I’d like to think that misconceptions about gender specific roles are gradually fading away – statistics show a slight improvement, but it’s not good enough.

I have a teenage daughter who is completing an apprenticeship in the industry and I’ve asked why she thinks her peer group don’t want to enter utilities/construction.

“It’s old fashioned, it’s just for men, it’s a physically hard job, there aren’t many women – especially young women doing it. There’s nobody like me.”

“Nobody like me”… this resonated as I’ve always thought that people recruit people like them. From Executive Boards, to line managers in the field. If we keep doing this, the workforce will be made up of individuals who all think the same, and have the same backgrounds and experience.

I feel like I’m in a great position to change this, but the people in our industry have to be open to it too. Women bring different approaches to traditionally male-dominated teams and this should be recognised. We’re not celebrating our strong positive role models within our business enough. Our industry should be proactive in celebrating our women in utilities and demonstrating that regardless of your gender, you can succeed. We need to increase visibility of our female role models internally and externally, highlighting women at all points in their careers to show that you can progress. We need to provide relatable figures and mentors to women and girls to show them that there are people like them in the industry, and we’re loving it!

Early engagement is crucial

This issue doesn’t start at recruitment for a vacancy in Energy Assets, it starts at home, in schools and in the media – young women aren’t choosing STEM subjects, and they’re not attracted to the industry.

The stereotype that construction and utilities is full of men in hard hats, who are unskilled and rough and ready still prevails. It’s an image we work hard to eradicate, but it was built over many, many years and will take just as long to undo. TV advertising and websites still show the industry as made up of predominantly men in hard hats, so why should people think that the reality is different?

We have to access our young women and let them know that careers in the sector are incredibly diverse and include everything from infrastructure design and project management, to engineering and commercial analytics. Most jobs in the industry require a great deal of skill and some don’t involve setting foot on a construction site! I think we need to take on more trainees and apprentices – roles aimed at younger people – so that we can show them that many roles can lead to great pay and an interesting career.

Let’s question what we’ve always done

We have to start on our own doorstep – our internal and external communications need to focus on highlighting the women in our business. We have some very interesting and successful women at Energy Assets, celebrate them! We have to get our team leaders who are recruiting to think differently – do they need someone just like them? No. Instead consider a young woman, just out of college or school, train her to do the job.

I’ve recently challenged a leader who is recruiting and they’ve changed their direction – they’re going to take on candidates with no experience and train them, rather than wanting the finished article to turn up at our door, ready to work on day one.  

We need to encourage colleagues to challenge each other and ask, can we do things differently this time? Can this role be part time, a job share or a later start shift? So that candidates can apply and work around parental or caring responsibilities.

We just need to question what we’ve always done and change it.

Lessons learned

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can be flexible.

To access women and entice them into Energy Assets, we have to do things differently to how we’ve always done them, otherwise we’ll get the same results. Many women in the workforce resigned during the pandemic, mainly due to schools and child care facilities closing.

The whole world is adjusting to post-pandemic work life and organisations are navigating the world of home working, hybrid working, split shifts etc. We can all learn from each other as we evolve our workplaces to align personal needs with business needs – there’s no one size fits all. Appropriate management and output mechanisms should be in place so that we can let go of the reins and consider different ways of working.

The industry also needs to break down recruiter bias. If a candidate has a gap in their CV due to maternity / paternity leave, or a caring related career break – it doesn’t matter. If a child is sick and a colleague has to take time off – so what? I’ve found working parents to be super conscientious, giving 110% to companies who provide that flexibility and trust.

Benefiting from a more balanced and diverse workforce

There’s a wealth of research outlining the benefits of diversity in the workplace – it’s no different in construction to any other industry. Increased revenue, better innovation, better decision-making and many other benefits. It’s proven that a diverse employee population excels best under a diverse leadership team – but more importantly, a leadership team which is truly committed to inclusivity.

I believe we’re committed, and we need to move on and make the changes we want to see within Energy Assets to encourage diversity – so that people can see people like them.

Is change happening – am I optimistic?

It’s happening and I’m optimistic, I wouldn’t write this piece unless I believed in what I’m doing and thinking. I wouldn’t write about such an important and life changing subject as encouraging women into construction if I wasn’t 100% behind it.  

However, it’s not happening quick enough.  

Talk to your children and their friends – tell them there’s a vast range of careers in construction and even bring them to work for a day to show them.

The industry has a crisis looming in terms of growth and a lack of candidates to fulfil that growth – we need to move quicker, be braver and take chances – stop looking for people who are “like you” and consider the benefits of someone who isn’t.

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*Energy Assets also recognises and celebrates all gender expressions, including, but not limited to, nonbinary individuals.

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