Construction is still not a career choice amongst many young women and there are long-held perceptions of the industry being manual, male-orientated and extremely dirty. Wates Construction is working alongside asset manager and commercial property developer, MEPC, to challenge these stereotypes and contribute to diversifying the workforce and educating young women (from primary school age onwards) about the positives of working in construction.
In support of International Women’s Day, Sunday 8th March, Wates Construction trainees Aimee Shann, Sophie Walker and Jaime Oliver, based at Wellington Place in Leeds, discuss their careers in construction and the ways firms can better encourage future generations of women to join the industry.
What made you seek a career in construction?
Sophie: I’m currently studying physics at Northumbria University and wanted to do something that involved the practical application of physics, which is why I decided to do my placement year in construction. In this industry, I can still use the skills that I’ve learnt in my degree but also be hands-on in the working environment.
Aimee: I did a Law degree at university, but I wasn’t sure a legal career was best suited to my skill set. After attending an open day in Wembley, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in construction. As I gain more experience in my role, I’m finding I get to use the skills I learnt at university, such as the legality of contracts, which shows that students can use their degree to diversify in any industry.
Jaime: I didn’t specifically seek a career in construction because I had no information on the career paths I could take in the industry until I was already in it. I studied Civil Engineering at University and it wasn’t until I was looking for a placement, I noticed the opportunities within the construction industry. I decided to go down this path as I wanted to explore how else I could apply my degree.
What is your favourite part of the job?
Sophie: I enjoy watching the process from planning through to the finished project. The Wellington Place development changes constantly and it’s really exciting to see it evolving so quickly. It’s rewarding to know that you had a part to play in the construction of such a significant Leeds commercial development and I’m looking forward to coming back in ten years’ time and saying I helped build it!
Aimee: I think for me it’s the variety – no two days are ever the same within construction. Wates’ ethos focuses on leaving a legacy and as employees, we’re not just responsible for building. I also enjoy supporting the company’s charity activities, including food banks and the running of Macmillan coffee mornings.
Jaime: For me, the best part of my job is continuously learning. I interact with a vast amount of people from different disciplines daily, which helps me to develop both my managerial skills and technical knowledge.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Sophie: Coordinating work across so many different companies and sub-contractors can be challenging, and as I’m still quite new to the job, I’m not as knowledgeable as others yet. I’m learning more every day though, and it’s useful to speak to other workers on-site to get a first-hand experience in the industry.
Aimee: Before I started this job, I didn’t have a construction background, so learning all the detail was challenging. With so much jargon, some days it feels as if you’re never going to know everything, but when I go home and speak to my parents about my day and they don’t understand what I’m saying, it gives me confidence that I know more than I think!
Jaime: It can be quite daunting going into a job where you are surrounded by people who are experts in their respective field when you feel as though you have no experience. At first, I found it difficult to ask everyone questions, but now I’m more confident and feel at home on-site with all the other members of the team.
Would you say there’s a need for education early on to show young girls the appeal of working in construction?
Sophie: I think when you ask people in construction how they got into their career they often say it was by accident! Schools tend to focus on academic studies and the more traditional route of A-levels and university. Not many girls tend to go down the apprenticeship route, so I think there needs to be a shift in the education system to show young girls the options that are available to them. In my opinion, there needs to be more female role models to show them that they can still achieve in what is still seen as a male-dominated industry.
Aimee: If you asked a young person to draw a construction worker, I think they would automatically draw a man in a hard hat. We need to work hard to combat this stereotype in order to show that, not only is construction a great career path for women, but there’s also so many different areas of work within the sector. Education in primary school is vital to encouraging girls into the industry before stereotypes are ingrained in them. I think if people could see it first-hand construction would sell itself, so holding open days and days to raise awareness is the key.
Jaime: Absolutely! Even as someone who was interested in STEM from leaving school, I had never considered construction as a career until I fell into it. If I had known the different career paths within the industry from an earlier age, I would have been able to make the most of apprenticeships to kickstart my career sooner. If young girls had more information available to them in schools and colleges from an early age about the lesser-known job roles within the industry, it would open young women’s minds to the possibilities.
How do you feel your organisation and the building developer have supported your career?
Sophie: Wates provides in-depth training courses to help develop our knowledge which we can then apply to our work on the development. As a company, it has put the effort into helping me progress my career, even at intern level. Wates also has a zero-tolerance policy and work hard to make sure that women are viewed as equal to the men on the site. I would personally feel confident to call out sexism anywhere in the workplace, knowing that we have the full support of the senior team.
Aimee: Wates has helped my career progress and it is inclusive of everyone, not just women. They are a family business and you can identify the high values it instils in its staff. I was able to attend an event through work called ‘Your Red Dress’ which was all about empowering women to reach their potential in industries that are typically male-dominated. I am also part of a diversity and inclusion group where we discuss how both the company and the wider industry can make changes to better support women, for example, flexible working and maternity leave.
Jaime: Wates is very supportive and proactive with training opportunities and developing ways for employees to build their knowledge and skills. There is a real team spirit on the development that was apparent to me when I first started. It feels like we are part of the group and not just with trainees.
Have you seen a difference in the number of women working in your industry over the last few years?
Sophie: I think that the equality issue stretches beyond just the construction industry alone. With so many companies feeding into construction, it’s important that everyone is appropriately educated in order to be able to make real change.
Aimee: Since I’ve started working on the site, we’ve had two new female trainees join the company. I think Wates intake for trainees is around 50/50, so we are starting to see a break-through in women entering the industry which is really inspiring to see.
Jaime: Definitely! I think we have more women on our apprenticeship and trainee schemes every year. I think the industry is really accommodating to women in the construction community and acknowledges the gender gap, which is often more apparent in this typically male-dominated industry. Wates is passionate about encouraging more women to pursue a career in construction.
What would you say to future generations of women who want to get into the industry?
Sophie: I would recommend the route I took, which was the traineeship. You get to work in the different sectors of the business, so you get a real insight into the whole industry before specialising. We’ve had a few girls come in for work experience recently, which is a positive step and proves that women are actually keen to get into this field, it’s just about providing the opportunities for them. I think parents often have a preconceived idea of what the industry is like, so it’s a good plan to get young women into the office to see how it really is!
Aimee: I would advise women who are thinking about going into construction to arrange work experience to see if construction is for them. I wouldn’t want someone to miss out on working in the industry because of the misconceptions they have. My friends still ask if it’s a manual job, but it’s actually the same as working in any other office! I think we need to challenge the stereotypes by talking more about what our chosen career involves and actively encourage women to join us.
Jaime: I would say just go for it! I would research all the different options that are open to you within the industry and arrange some work experience, as you will learn the most from working on the job and from other people in the industry. On the traineeship, you get to work in all the different sections to see which one suits your skillset the best and you have the flexibility to move into a field you may not have considered previously.