An outdated image of men – and it usually was only men - in filthy overalls, digging holes in pouring rain, still clings.
It has to change. With the beginnings of an economic recovery, the country is building again and construction does not want to be caught out by yet another skills shortage when demand increases.
As the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has shown, employment is picking up from the depths of the recession to an expected 2.65 million this year and pushing 2.7 million by 2016.
Perhaps the most radical approach is to change the nature of construction itself by using components made in factories, transported to sites and fitted together into buildings, though conventional work, like excavation, would of course still be needed.
Laing O’Rourke is among major contractors promoting this approach, according to its sustainability director Caroline Blackman.
“Off-site work is the way we are starting to go,” she says. “That changes our needs from traditional trades to being much more about manufacturing, with a lot of emphasis on logistics, planning and design, and on lifting and crane strategies.
“We think that has a totally different skills profile with a lot more professional and semi-professional jobs, which suits the way the UK is going as more people go into tertiary education.”
The skills needed are out there in groups the industry has not reached before
Ms Blackwell concedes the industry must convince clients of the merits of off-site construction, though hopes that offering greater speed will help.
Another persuasive factor, for both conventional and off-site projects, is the use of building information modelling, so “you can show a client the whole building in a virtual model”.
She adds: “Young people find working with computers and engineering very attractive, and it is open to a far more diverse group than construction was before.”
For traditional site work, Ms Blackwell says: “Sites are now cleaner and more attractive places to work. In the past 20 years there has been a fundamental change in safety and this is now a good and exciting place to work.”
Vicky Skene, director of employee engagement and inclusion at Balfour Beatty Construction Services UK, puts emphasis on widening the pool of potential recruits.
Only a few years ago, a construction contractor taking an initiative on sexual orientation might, to say the least, have provoked comment and a disability initiative cause only slightly less surprise.
But these have been among Balfour Beatty’s approaches. Ms Skene says: “We are doing this because it’s good for business. If you just recruit among groups, which you always recruited from, then when you’re looking at a project, you are always going to get the same answers; you don’t get people who think differently, so you miss out on original perspectives. There is a lot of evidence for that.”
She says Balfour Beatty’s diversity work is starting to make a difference with, for example, more female staff returning after maternity leave once the company actively drew attention to this possibility.
“It’s about not losing talent. For example, if someone applied for a job, but says family responsibilities mean they want to work four days a week, we’ll allow that if we can,” she says.
Balfour Beatty’s employee survey this year will ask about sexual orientation and the company has set up a staff lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender network.
Ms Skene says: “It is really brave, given traditional attitudes, and we were not sure how it would be received, but it has landed really well among our staff and allows the industry to be more open.”
Work on disabilities looks at how people could be supported into work appropriate to their capabilities.
“It could mean office work, but could also be on-site,” Ms Skene says. “For example, people with dyslexia or dyspraxia may need only some small adjustments made and they can work.”
Unconscious bias training has started with senior managers and will be spread through the company to site “toolbox talks”.
To more generally burnish the industry’s image, younger Balfour Beatty staff are working with school students through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme to promote construction “as an OK place to work and not somewhere just concerned with digging holes”, she says.
“My view is that the industry’s problem is not one of pay, but rather this perception that we just stick spades in the ground – and there is an education piece to be done.”
The CITB, which provides industrywide training, is also at work on diversity. Employer services director Mike Bilayj says: “We are encouraging the industry to ensure it has a diverse intake. Ethnic minority and women entrants are needed because, with the recovery, the industry is already experiencing skills shortage and it will only get worse unless it can harness the skills of the best people. The skills needed are out there in groups the industry has not reached before.”
Mr Bilayj says the industry “cannot rely on careers services” to solve its image problem and “we need to get across the opportunities and good long-term prospects in everything from trade to technical posts to professional ones”, in particular through work in schools.
Economic reasons will bring companies round to embracing diversity and improving the industry’s image, as otherwise: “It will simply not have the skilled workforce it needs.”
He concludes: “This is all in the industry’s own interest.”