Adversity, diversity and disability - untapped benefits for construction

As individuals and as organisations, we have all faced a lot of adversity over these past months.

Sir James Wates CBE

Last updated: 12th July 2021

The pandemic was the most challenging time in the Wates Group’s 124 year history, and we’ve been through two world wars and numerous economic crises. It came on top of several other shocks to the construction sector – Brexit, the collapse of Carillion, and the Grenfell tragedy, to name a few. As a sector, we have been plagued by quality issues, low margins and inefficiencies in the way we work. So some of this adversity has been of our own making.

One of the ways we have hurt ourselves is our failure to make ourselves an attractive career option for people with disabilities. 

This is part of a bigger problem: our broader lack of diversity. I’m pleased to see some very good efforts to redress our historical lack of diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity. But let’s not forget disability.

To help our businesses respond to this age of adversity, we need to tap into the abilities of people for whom adversity is a simple fact of life, something they face everyday.

That we have been failing to recruit more people with disabilities is nonsensical. About 20% of working-age adults in the UK have a disability, but in construction, people with disabilities make up only about 9% of our workforce. 

No wonder we have skills shortages if we are failing to make ourselves an attractive career option for such a large, untapped segment of the broader population.

How do we change this?

First of all, we start by creating truly inclusive environments in our companies – creating a broader culture in which everyone is treated fairly and gets the chance to contribute and progress. Creating workplaces where new ideas are encouraged, where the well being of our people is explicitly prioritised, where performance is recognised and differences are celebrated.

Creating such culture change might seem daunting, but there are some simple steps we can all take that make our companies more inclusive, in particular for people with disabilities:

•    Feature more disabled people in the images we use in marketing materials. Include stories about people with disabilities in all communications. Celebrate their successes, and make sure people with disabilities can literally picture themselves in construction.

•    Look carefully at recruitment practices to make sure they’re not unwittingly excluding people, for example because of narrow selection criteria.

•    Explicitly welcome people with disabilities in recruitment adverts and other communications, and make sure the platforms on which we post vacancies are easily accessible to those with sensory disabilities.

•    After welcoming disabled colleagues to the business, keep asking them how the company can continue to support them.

•    Having seen how effective remote working can be during the pandemic, many of us are re-imagining the office environment. Take the opportunity to renovate to create spaces that allow people with disabilities to be most effective – for example with more space and fewer obstacles for wheelchair use, or more signage in braille.

•    Set up “listening groups” that allow people with disabilities to come together with others to learn, share ideas and collaborate on solutions to challenges they face. This is something we do at Wates, and we’ve even had paralympic gold medal winner Will Bayley participate.

Indeed, it’s important – and inspirational – to hear the stories of people with disabilities and champion their success. We’ve not seen the end of the pandemic, and we can expect for construction to experience new, unexpected adversities in future. What better way to prepare than to recruit more diverse teams, including those for whom rising above adversity is something they do every day?