By James Oxenham, CEO, Hire and Rental Industry Association

It’s no secret that the infrastructure sector is staring down the barrel of a critical skills and worker shortage in the coming decade; and at the same time, we know that there’s so much more that can be done to increase the participation of women in the sector. Here, James Oxenham looks at the steps we can take to increase the number of women embarking on construction careers, and the multiple benefits that will flow on from this.

When most people think of a carpenter, electrician, or foreman, they think of a man. And for the most part, they would be right. Australia’s construction industry is undeniably a male-dominated space, with women comprising a mere 2 per cent of on-site employees across the country. As the sector continues to face severe skills shortages, however, it has become increasingly clear that integrating women into construction roles could hold the key to addressing many of the sector’s challenges.

While this isn’t an entirely new concept – a push for a more diverse workforce has seen many more women join the industry in recent years – it is one that we need to invest in now more than ever. From building houses to developing infrastructure and important community facilities, the construction sector is the backbone of the Australian economy. To create a more inclusive, accessible, and innovative industry, we must tap into the talents and perspectives of women.

Understanding the skills shortage

The construction industry’s skill shortage has taken a toll on various sectors including residential, commercial, civil engineering, and infrastructure projects. Although Australia’s growing economy has created significant demand for construction projects, an ageing workforce, lack of training programs, and immigration restrictions are just a few reasons why the sector is struggling to find skilled workers.

The consequences of this skills shortage are widespread and take a significant toll on businesses, individual workers, and the industry as a whole. Critical infrastructure projects have experienced major delays, scarcity of materials is leading to cost overruns, and understaffed businesses are experiencing reduced productivity and increased labour costs.

These issues go on to affect various aspects of the Australian economy, impacting inflation, interest rates, and overall economic health. Just as important is the effect that it has on quality and safety standards, as more and more employees feel the need to rush work or undertake unsafe or unsupervised practices to complete projects. This domino effect of consequences ultimately hinders the innovation and growth of the industry, limiting the adoption of new technologies and sustainable practices.

Fostering resilience in the industry 

With so many businesses affected by this widespread skills shortage, the industry must recognise the importance of attracting and retaining talent when it comes to building a robust construction sector. With research showing that one in two women are looking to change careers, there is no better time for the construction industry to create pathways for a more diverse workforce.

Technological advancements have played a pivotal role in making the industry more accessible for people of all genders and abilities. With automation reducing the reliance on manual labour, the sector has become increasingly appealing to women seeking fulfilling career opportunities. However, it’s not enough to simply encourage women to apply – realising the full potential of female talent requires a cultural shift within construction firms.

Creating an environment that values diversity and inclusion is critical to fostering resilience in the industry. By recognising and addressing gender biases, companies can cultivate workplaces that empower all employees to thrive. This includes developing initiatives that aim to promote work-life balance, mental well-being, and professional development. By making the industry a more psychologically safe and enjoyable place to work, we can not only attract more talent but ensure they stick around for longer.

A more gender-inclusive construction workforce is also a great way to improve your bottom line. Studies have shown that diverse teams are more profitable, with McKinsey & Company reporting a direct correlation between diversified workforces and profitability. Businesses that operate without gender bias are more likely to hire based on ability and experience, creating a more productive and capable workforce. With all this in mind, it’s clear that to gain a competitive edge in an increasingly competitive market, construction companies should focus on recruiting and retaining women.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

Embracing diversity is not simply a question of morals or ethics. It’s also a great way for businesses to gain a strategic advantage over competitors. Research consistently demonstrates that diverse teams outperform their competitors in areas such as communication, decision- making, and leadership. The reason for this is simple: when you hire more diverse people, you gain a more diverse set of perspectives, strengths, and skills that help you to drive innovation and productivity. In the context of the construction industry, where collaboration and problem- solving are pivotal skills, gender diversity is the key to unlocking a whole new level of success.

Women bring a unique set of skills to the table, including strong communication, empathy, and adaptability. These qualities are particularly valuable in construction environments where teamwork and creative problem-solving are essential. By fostering a culture that celebrates these attributes, construction firms can create inclusive workplaces where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute their best work.

Promoting gender diversity can also have a ripple effect on workplace culture, enhancing employee satisfaction and retention. By creating environments where individuals feel supported and respected, companies can foster a sense of belonging for all workers regardless of gender. This, in turn, can lead to greater collaboration, innovation, and overall success as employees feel more fulfilled and secure in their roles.

A path to inclusivity

Creating a more inclusive construction industry requires dedication from all stakeholders, whether it be industry leaders or individual employees. Initiatives aimed at breaking down barriers and promoting gender diversity are essential in driving meaningful change. Programs like the Women in Hire Development Program, established by HRIA, provide valuable resources and support to women entering the industry, paving the way for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

Collaboration between the hire and construction sectors presents a unique opportunity to amplify these efforts. By aligning strategies and sharing best practices, stakeholders can leverage their collective influence to effect positive change. This collaborative approach not only benefits individual companies but also strengthens the industry as a whole, fostering a culture of inclusivity and innovation.

We can’t do this without addressing the systemic barriers that women face when entering and advancing within the construction industry. This includes combatting stereotypes, providing mentorship and networking opportunities, and implementing policies that support work-life balance and parental leave. By creating a more supportive and inclusive environment, the industry can attract and retain top talent from all backgrounds, driving long-term growth and success.

Looking ahead

As the construction industry grapples with evolving demands and persistent challenges, the need to embrace diversity
and inclusion has never been more pressing. By welcoming women into the workforce, construction firms can tap into a rich pool of talent, drive innovation, and foster environments that promote success and well-being.

This isn’t simply a matter of social responsibility. It’s a much-needed answer to the industry’s critical skills shortage. Embracing gender diversity will inevitably create a stronger and more resilient construction sector for generations to come. We’ve all seen first-hand just how devastating the skills shortage can be – it’s time that we recognise how gender diversity can help us bridge the gap.

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