Saturday 22 October 2016

The Right Moves: Time for construction industry to realise there is strength in diversity

Paul McNeive

Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30

Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation
Tom Parlon, director general of the Construction Industry Federation

It was some teasing received after the publication of AECOM's Annual Review in 2015 that inspired John O'Regan, a director of AECOM's Irish operation, to immerse himself in the topic of diversity in the workplace.

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The issue was that the management team pictured on the report were all male, middle-aged and white. AECOM set out to turn that around and O'Regan is still pushing the diversity agenda in the industry.

AECOM provide engineering, consulting and project management services and now 29pc of its staff in Ireland and the UK are women, as are 11pc of senior management.

However, O'Regan is convinced that the "diversity agenda" is not getting sufficient attention in the property world, To address that, he recently invited representatives from the construction industry, developers, and all of the related professions, to participate in a workshop.

Over 50 industry figures attended and speakers included Claire Solon, President of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) and Head of Property at Friends First, and Liz O'Donnell, who provided a view from outside the industry.

The property industry is suffering from a shortage of talent and while most firms are expanding again, a lower proportion of women are returning to the workforce.

John O'Regan told me the industry has to become more attractive to women. Practical measures which AECOM have taken include flexibility around the number of hours and days worked. Most AECOM senior staff do some of their weekly work from home.

AECOM has a target in Europe to have women make up 40pc of its staff by 2020, with 20pc in senior management. To achieve this, O'Regan told me the firm will have to continue to develop a culture that is inclusive to all. This includes training for all staff on overcoming "unconscious bias" - that is any assumption that particular jobs are more likely to be filled by men.

They have modified their external hiring policies and strongly promote mentoring of women staff by other women, which enhances the prospect of career progression.

O'Regan says while gender quotas are controversial (indeed many women are against them), firms should have targets to address imbalances.

"It's also important that you keep measuring how you're doing," he added.

Across the property professions, it's estimated that 20pc of staff are women, although it tends to be higher in estate agencies. Particular areas such as retail agency, office agency and new homes have more women than men, in many firms.

Not surprisingly, in construction companies the proportion of women is very low. However, Tom Parlon, Director General of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), who also attended the workshop, told me that it makes no sense to exclude half of the population when recruiting. The CIF has just completed a study which forecasts that the construction industry will need up to 80,000 more people in the workforce by 2020.

O'Regan suggests that one way of solving the manpower crisis will be to reignite our "ethnic diversity" and re-attract workers from abroad.

For example, in 2007, 226,000 people were employed in construction, of which 47,800 were 'non-domestic'. By last year, 111,000 were employed, and just 15,300 were 'non domestic'. O'Regan told me that engineering qualifications are particularly transferable and that more jobs could be filled by immigrants.

Disability diversity was also discussed, although I am not aware of any statistics on the number of people with disabilities in the industry. A bad starting point, though, is that most of the industry's Georgian office headquarters are inaccessible to wheelchairs.

Innovation Is key

Innovation in new products and services is the key to success in property.

I'm delighted to be a speaker on 'Unleashing the Power of Innovation' at the IRDG conference at The Helix, Dublin on October 27. Full details available at

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