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Ipswich firm working to attract more women into construction

PUBLISHED: 06:00 26 November 2018

Barnes Construction wants to encourage more young women to consider a career in construction

Barnes Construction wants to encourage more young women to consider a career in construction

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Barnes Construction has had some success in encouraging young women to consider a career in the construction sector.

Bob Steward, joint managing director at Barnes Construction Pic:Paul Nixon PhotographyBob Steward, joint managing director at Barnes Construction Pic:Paul Nixon Photography

According to the Chinese proverb ‘women hold up half the sky’ but when it comes to females working in the construction sector, the percentage is far lower.

Leading regional construction firm Barnes Construction is working hard to change perceptions and encourage more young women to consider a career in the profession, and, according to Bob Steward, joint managing director at the business, it is having some success in bringing traditional views up to date.

“The industry does suffer from an image problem to a certain extent and attracting people with the right skills is an issue, but the sector is particularly unattractive to females,” he said.

“As a proportion of the workforce, industry figures show that within the technical roles around 13 to 14% of workers are women.

“That is heavily loaded in the architectural field because there are some architectural practices where the split is 50:50 male/female – especially in places like London and Cambridge, maybe less so in Suffolk.”

But when it comes to the delivery side of construction where Barnes’ business works, fewer women are involved.

Looking at the technical and management areas of construction – in roles such as quantity surveying and services engineering - Bob says there’s a much lower percentage of women working but that the situation is improving.

However, when it comes to tradesmen working on-site, in jobs like plasterers, bricklayers and carpenters, there is a very different story - with around 1% of workers being women.

Kerri Orriss assistant quantity surveyor at Barnes Construction Picture: PagepixKerri Orriss assistant quantity surveyor at Barnes Construction Picture: Pagepix

“It’s been like that forever and a day, mainly because there is a perception that a site environment is not the most attractive place to work compared with a modern, office that is air-conditioned and heated,” continued Bob.

“But the facilities are much better than they were say 20 or so years ago, with all sites now set up to meet the welfare requirements of both sexes.”

Working with schools

Bob feels schools have a fundamental role to play in changing perceptions about what a career in construction in the 21st Century actually 
entails.

He continued: “You still hear stories like one teacher taking pupils on a tour of a building site and when they got back on the bus saying to them ‘if you don’t work hard and get your exams that is where you will end up’.

“That is an extreme example, but the view is that if you end up working on a building site you are a failure.”

“There’s a real lack of understanding of the disciplines and the opportunities within construction. I recently read a statistic that around 40% of young women believed that a job in construction meant working on site.

Barnes Construction has taken on a number of women employees in recent yearsBarnes Construction has taken on a number of women employees in recent years

“That is obviously not the case – there are roles such as quantity surveyors, estimators, planners, bid managers, finance and marketing. There are probably six or seven distinct career routes and the only one that would lead to people working exclusively on site is the site manager route. All the other roles are office-based or would involve visits to sites.

“There’s also a lack of understanding around the salaries that can be earned and the career potential.”

Bob added: “Through our management training programme we are engaging with the schools and one of our directors Simon Severwright regularly goes into local schools to campaign for the sector and Barnes in particular.

“We’ve had decent feedback – applications have increased in the past few years. If you can get in and engage with schools, you can have some success.”

Management trainees

The Barnes Group is a member of the EADT/EDP Top 100 listing of the 100 largest companies in Suffolk and Norfolk and is based on Ransomes Europark in Ipswich.

It comprises two operating divisions, Bower Fuller and Barnes Construction. Bower Fuller is a mechanical and electrical contractor whilst Barnes Construction is a regional building contractor formed in 1978. Around three-quarters of the group’s £87m turnover comes via Barnes Construction, which, although a general contractor, has some specialisms: the company is on a number of local authority frameworks as a preferred builder of schools; the leisure sector - restaurants and pubs - is another strong area for Barnes, which also works closely with many of the colleges in Cambridge and some of the region’s hospitals.

Current projects include three new graduate houses for Churchill College in Cambridge; the £14million construction of Paxman Academy School in Colchester; and an extension to the offices of utility infrastructure company BUUK based in Woolpit.

From its outset in 1978, Barnes has been keen to ensure it has a regular stream of new blood coming into the company, so early on a management trainee programme was developed. Every year, a number of recruits from local schools are brought in.

“It’s been a real success. Three of the current directors came into the company via the management trainee course, as did around 
60% of our technical staff,” said Bob.

“We try to be as neutral as we can with our adverts – although potential candidates will see Barnes Construction on there, we don’t mention construction per se and our main advertising call is for management trainees.

“This is designed to hook in young men and women who haven’t really got a perception of construction but know they want a career in management. That approach has helped us to attract quality candidates.”

Making progress

A number of recent women recruits are making good progress in the technical side of the business: Harriet Turner is in her second year of the management trainee course; Kerri Orriss works as an assistant quantity surveyor, while Heidi Finbow has progressed to the position of senior estimator.

Bob continued: “We are getting more female applicants – nearly 25% of the people who applied for the management training course last year were women, whereas historically that figure has been around 10%.

“We shortlisted ten candidates, including two young women but unfortunately they had found other positions before we interviewed.

Next year Barnes plans to include one or two women employees in the visits to schools to further promote the fact that women can have a fulfilling career in the construction industry.

Bob added: “I don’t think we will ever get to 50:50 men and women in construction but I see no reason why we can’t follow the architectural side and employ a much higher percentage of women in the technical side of the business.”

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