Enterprise Ireland tackles diversity in Construction with inspiring careers showcase for new entrants, and calls for an industry rebrand.

The construction industry remains one of the least diverse sectors in the UK economy, with women representing only 13% of the workforce and on construction sites, less than half that. But for the women who work in construction, it is also – according to a recent survey – a highly enjoyable place to be with an increasingly varied number of roles and opportunities to thrive. Why then, do so few women consider careers in the sector? The construction industry needs to consider how it markets itself and proactively showcase its range and diversity.

Addressing this imbalance, Enterprise Ireland held She Built That at the Irish Embassy in London. The evening centred on an inspiring panel discussion with four successful female construction executives: Eilis McShane, Façade Specialist; Jacqui O’Donovan, Managing Director at O’Donovan Waste; Alison Nicholl, Head of Constructing Excellence; and Kate McMillan, Development Consultant. Each had a unique story to tell about how she started her career. Chance, the kindness of others, a lucky break seemed to be the only common thread – along with the constant experience of being the only woman in the room or on the site.

In the audience were twenty young women from Newham council’s employment agency, Newham Workplace who after the discussion, enjoyed a motivational speech from personal development coach, Nuala Forsey, and a networking session with mentors from Enterprise Ireland’s client companies and other attendees.

Particularly inspirational on the evening was Jacqui O’Donovan’s career story – striking not only in construction, but in UK business. Leaving school at 16 with three O-levels and set on a career as a childminder, the death of her father at the age of 51 plunged the family into turmoil and into action to manage the family business. Turnover was £175,000 then; now, under her leadership, it has risen to £19m.

“If my father had not died so young, I would have married in my early 20s, had a large family and stayed at home” she said.

In common with others on the panel, her pathway into construction was accidental and her formative experience through informal mentoring. “It was being exposed to my father’s business from the age of 11. I socialised with the workers, listened to their conversations, observed how my father operated, and saw the paperwork. When I actually had to go in and get down to it, I was familiar with the surroundings.” she said.

Kate McMillan shared her experience rising in construction.

“I was at university and looking for work in the holidays. I was given a week to find a job by my parents. Otherwise I was going to have to work for one of them, which incentivised me to go and get a job of my own! ”

Kate managed to get a temping job with St. James, a subsidiary of the UK property developer Berkeley Group, and was invited back every university holiday thereafter. By the time she graduated she knew what she wanted to do.

All on the panel agreed that having a role model to relate to can be life changing, particularly if they have experienced similar difficulties and challenges in their career. And work experience, as both Kate McMillan and Jacqui O’Donovan found out, is a vital component of any career progress. Other tips from the panel included networking and participating in associations, like the National Association of Women in Construction which can raise profile and make valuable contacts. Along with resilience and persistence, came optimism that the industry is simply changing itself into a more woman-friendly environment because it has no choice but to.

Aíne Kelly, Technical Design Manager at St George Plc, welcomed the chance to offer mentoring and share her experience, “I have been saying [to the mentees] ‘come to our site, come and see how the construction industry operates. Have a look and we can do some mentoring, and answer any questions that you have’. This is an opportunity to give back really, that was really helpful for me. I think that’s what it’s really all about.”

Speaking at the event, Enterprise Ireland Construction Market Advisor, Anne Corr, said, “We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of our client companies. They have put together stimulating tours and work experience programmes which will be offered to candidates from Newham Workplace.


“In overcoming the skills gap facing the UK construction industry, it’s so important that young people are given the chance to understand first-hand how many career paths are available to them within the wider construction industry.”

For other Enterprise Ireland clients, the state of the construction industry itself was an opportunity for a rising generation to take advantage of opportunities. Caroline Cavanagh, a marketing manager at Banagher Precast Concrete, said “I found this evening very inspirational, it was great to hear people being so positive, about an industry which at the moment is on the cusp of uncertainty.

“Despite this, there are great opportunities here for women. There is a skills gap and we are missing engineers, we’re missing CAD technicians and all sorts of other people from the industry. Right now is a perfect time for women to take advantage of that and to go for it.”

She added, “This evening, the speakers gave the girls in the room that bit of confidence to let them know that anything is possible and that there is an industry waiting for them, and not to be afraid to take that next step.”

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