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Tools of change: Fixing the skills shortage in construction

Tools of change: Fixing the skills shortage in construction

Empowered Women in Trades’ Melinda Davis shares compelling ideas and essential tools aimed at breaking down barriers in construction and creating opportunities for women in trades.

By Melinda Davis, COO of Empowered Women in Trades.

If you don’t know Empowered Women in Trades (EWIT) – we are all about creating more opportunities for women to pick up the tools and take advantage of the fantastic opportunities in skilled trades and the construction industry that men have been enjoying since, well, forever. EWIT has only been around for a couple of years but last year 5,000 women took part in our activities.

Despite our efforts (and those of many other wonderful organisations like ours), it has been slow going for a long time. Currently, only 3 per cent of tradies are female and that number hasn’t changed in more than 20 years.

In the meantime, the government’s Skills Priority List indicates that 100 per cent of trades are short of skilled workers. This figure is only going to get worse as construction demand increases. I doubt anyone would disagree that half the population is a great place to look for new workers, especially when they represent only 3 per cent of our current workforce.

Are things getting better?

I was pleased to see an article recently which highlighted the number of female electricians increased by 97 per cent in the last ten years. It’s a start, but it’s a small base to grow on (from 1,400 to 2,750) and it was a long time coming. That sort of glacial change isn’t going to make a dent in the 48 per cent of construction vacancies that went unfilled last year.

What can we do as an industry to change the situation I hear you ask?

There is no one fix to this. The industry is engaged, demonstrating a desire to create opportunities for female electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders and more. Educational opportunities are on the rise, with organisations like EWIT, TAFEs, registered training organisations and pre‐apprenticeship programs already in existence and expanding in response to demand. The government is starting to provide incentives and programs supporting the development of a stronger female skilled trade workforce. As a community, we are becoming more open to the idea of women embracing a career in the construction industry and picking up the tools. However, to connect all these pieces effectively, we need to coordinate each stage of the career pathway and make it easy for women to follow.

Here are five things we can do to improve this situation:

1. Start at the beginning: Government, educators, parents and the industry must collectively support young women considering a career in construction. School-based programs, internships and work experience are part of the solution. According to an industry survey, only 3 per cent of women working in trades reported receiving any encouragement from school, TAFE or university to consider a skilled trade. You cannot be what you cannot see, so we need to do better to make trades accessible to all.

2. Flexible education offerings: Offer flexible training options for people wanting to undertake further studies but unable to forego 12-16 weeks of income for a pre-apprenticeship course. Introduce evening or weekend classes that take longer but support those who need to earn an income in the process.

3. Change the way we recruit: An outdated job advertisement, featuring a checklist of skills required on employment marketplaces, will no longer suffice in attracting the best talent, particularly women. Research indicates that unless women feel competent in meeting 60-80 per cent of the job requirements in an advertisement, they won’t apply. Rather than fixating on specific skills, focus on the attributes needed for a role; after all, we can teach people almost anything.

4. Create a welcoming environment: The industry needs to make more of an effort to welcome and accommodate women. That can be as simple as locks on toilet and changing room doors, providing other women as mentors and offering flexibility options so that both men and women can manage their children’s lives. Currently, 90 per cent of the parental load in Australia is still carried by women.

5. Provide career planning and progress: Ensure that your organisation provides opportunities for career advancement and progression. Offering upskilling opportunities, increasing knowledge through professional tickets and providing mentorship are all ways to keep people connected to their careers, making them feel valued while also benefiting the organisation.

This is all achievable and in the long term, it will ensure a thriving construction industry in Australia for the future. At EWIT our aim is 30 by 30 – that is, 30 per cent women in skilled trades by 2030. We believe 30 by 30 is the solution the industry needs and will create a bright future for women in the process. If you would like to support our work, check out our website and get involved.

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