Women in construction: Diversifying the sector in a post-COVID-19 world

Diversifying New Zealand's construction workforce by encouraging more women to join could be vital as part of New Zealand's economic post-COVID-19 rebuild.

It's been around two months since the start of New Zealand's lockdown and the economic implications of the restrictions and COVID-19's global spread continue to hit hard. There has been a steady stream of redundancies, with unemployment not expected to peak until September.

Economic uncertainty and job insecurity means it's likely there will be a downturn in residential construction over the next year as Kiwis hang back from investing and hitting the greenlight on new builds.

Fletcher Building announced plans to lay off 1000 employees in Aotearoa on Wednesday, and in an update on the NZX, said it was expecting "New Zealand commercial building activity to be impacted by a reduced pipeline in the private sector".

But that slowdown won't last forever, said Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) chief executive Warwick Quinn 

"We see this with every recession, everything shrinks and construction shrinks, and then the economy recovers, people have confidence about their jobs, have confidence to invest and then we shoot away really rapidly," Quinn told Newshub. 

Opportunity to diversify

The construction of large infrastructure was pegged early in the COVID-19 pandemic as a key way to stimulate the economy going forward. 

Over the last two months, the Government has promised to repurpose money from the Provincial Growth Fund towards projects not tied down in red tape, set aside $3 billion for infrastructure in Budget 2020, and began seeking out "shovel-ready" projects. That's on top of $12 billion committed earlier this year as part of the New Zealand Upgrade Programme. Eight thousand new public houses have also been planned.

Fletcher Building acknowledged these projects would help support its business down the track. 

"We expect the New Zealand Government commitment to infrastructure spend to support our businesses exposed to that sector, however, we expect work put in place to decrease by c10 percent in FY21 as new projects take time to ramp-up."

When those Government projects begin rolling out and the sector rebound occurs, the industry is going to need more people, Stacey Mendonça, President of the National Association of Women In Construction (NWAIC), says.

But the New Zealand construction industry is extremely male-dominated and in need of diversification, Quinn told Newshub. The sector has struggled with skill shortages and may be further hampered due to border closures and a lack of confidence by foreigners to migrate globally. 

According to StatsNZ, about 13 percent of people in construction are female, while Quinn said just 3 or 4 percent of construction tradespeople are women on the tools. BCITO wants women to make up 30 percent of women in construction trades roles by 2040.

"We have to diversify as a sector. We have a shrinking pool of prospects. We have a very small birth rate," Quinn said.

"In the past, we have often relied on immigrants to fill the shortfall because we haven't grown our own [workers]."

Warwick Quinn.
Warwick Quinn. Photo credit: The AM Show.

Mendonça agrees the downturn presents a chance to encourage more women into an industry with many different types of roles, ranging from those on-site to other more administrative jobs.

"There is going to be a bit of a lull in activity. I think that is an ideal opportunity to train… to do something different and take it as an opportunity for change. Although it might be a quiet time, I think it can be a useful time to really think about, if someone has been redundant, what do they really want to do," she told Newshub.

"There are people out there who are passionate and natural at working with their hands and this just might be the opportunity where they are forced to consider a different industry."

In Budget 2020, a $1.6 billion Trades and Apprenticeship Training package was revealed. That included funding for free trades training in critical industries and more money for additional tertiary education enrolments. 

Mendonça said skills developed in other jobs can often easily be translated to the construction industry. For example, project managers in other sectors who have been made redundant during the COVID-19 pandemic could become project managers on a worksite. 

"It's a mindset of realising that the construction industry is just not all about digging holes or drilling into concrete. There is a huge amount of other aspects of the industry to consider."

Business people talking in quarry
Photo credit: File.

Barriers for women

A recent research project commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Ako Aotearoa titled Women in Trades looked to increase female participation "where they are traditionally underrepresented". 

The report found there were five key barriers to for women entering and working in the trades:

  • lack of knowledge about the opportunities within the trades
  • lack of work experience
  • finding employers willing to employ women
  • male-dominated culture of the trades
  • lack of support for women in the trades.

Quinn said there is no single bullet for breaking down these hurdles. Instead, a long-term cultural change is necessary.

"This cultural change is going to take time… the Government can't do it themselves. They can't do a lot. They can encourage women for any jobs that might come along in the trades that they have got control over. But really it is over to the sector to step up to the plate and do what it needs to do," he said.

Part of the problem is that women - especially female students - aren't told there are opportunities for them in the industry. There's also the issue of Kiwis perceiving the trades as a secondary option or pathway to going to university. 

He said educators, parents and employers need to get on board. 

"We know that the key influencers are the ones that steer kids or anybody in the direction when they are at school. We know that parents and caregivers and career advisers have a strong influence over what a young person decides to do and if we can change the hearts and minds and attitudes of them, then you are likely to have a more honest and open conversation," Quinn said.

With strict health and safety guidelines and modern technology, the view of trades and construction as being a down-in-the-mud, exhausting sector is wrong, Quinn told Newshub.

"Issues around 'oh it is dirty, and it is heavy lifting' and all that sort of stuff are part of the myths as to why construction isn't suitable. With all the health and safety rules these days and all the issues you have to address, it is no different whether you are a man or a woman and so those things need to be debunked."

Mendonça, a chief estimator who has been in the industry for 30 years, agreed: "You don't have to be a big, strong bloke anymore to work on the tools."

She said the NAWIC is working with "the Ministry of Education and going to schools and taking three women in construction to meet with some kids." Providing role models is extremely important, she said. 

"How can a young teenage girl visualise herself as an engineer or an architect if she can't see examples of young engineers and architects," Mendonça said.

The NWAIC also runs excellence awards for women to highlight their achievements.

By showing female students the value in the trades and examples of women in the sector, more may sign up for programmes like Gateway, which provide workplace learning while at high school. 

"I think the construction industry should be considered for women, for women who like to be a part of the build environment, for women who like some people-based interactions… communication and getting on with people is very important, and again that meticulous eye to detail is really important, and also being able to deal with some complex situations."

Home under construction
Photo credit: Getty.

BCITO is also trying to normalise the idea of women on construction sites with its advertising and marketing. 

"As BCITO, we are doing a lot of promotion, a lot of work, around making sure that all of our collateral and all of our stuff that we use to advertise have women fairly represented, equally represented through our marketing and advertising. We share that information with our members, our associations, that are part of us, to do the same," he said.

Changing the attitudes of "influencers" and allowing women to see the opportunities in trades is only part of the challenge. 

Quinn said employers need to recognise the worth of women in the sector and ensure the environment is welcoming for them.

"We have identified a bunch of initiatives that employers can think about when it comes to growing their workforce with women," Quinn said.

That includes advertising positions online that say anybody can apply "including women", offering flexible hours and building partnerships with schools and education providers so employers can directly connect with female students. 

"It's one thing to attract females into the sector, it is another thing to ensure that our sector is able to respond to them and create an environment that employers can develop for women to thrive in as well," Quinn said.

Efforts appear to be slowly progressing, however. Mendonça said there has been an increase recently in the number of women entering the industry.

"Apprenticeships are seeing a diverse enrollment and there are more women and there are older women and there are also older men," she said.

"I saw something the other today where a new apprentice was 40. There's this norm where people are kinda going through their second careers.

"We want to do this for the betterment of the whole industry. We are not singly doing this for women. We know there is a shortage of expertise in the construction industry so if we can help and make it better overall, that makes the industry look good as a whole."