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05 Dec

Is increased diversity key to attracting and keeping staff?

Clear career pathways, empathy, understanding and CPD are important for attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, concludes a brownfield panel, held in partnership with SiLC. – BY IAN GRANT

Article originally published by Environmental Analyst.

Lack of diversity and the skills shortage in the brownfield profession go hand in hand. This was a firm conclusion drawn by participants at the Brownfield and Regeneration Network panel discussion ‘Perspectives on Tackling the Skills, Resource & Diversity Challenges in the Brownfield Sector’, which was held in partnership with Specialist in Land Condition (SiLC).

The conclusions are confirmed by a couple of reports, both of which were covered by the panel. The first, by the Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES), is entitled ‘A plan for systemic change to improve diversity in the environment sector,’ and the second is the Environment Analyst Sustainability Delivery Group’s survey of 300 early career professionals.

Roni Savage, MD and founder of Jomas Associates, set the scene by saying: “Globally across the construction industry there are 40,000 vacancies. Sixteen percent of the workforce is female. Four to five per cent are from an ethnic minority – in a country where 14% are from an ethnic minority background.

“As we suffer from vacancies, it makes sense we [try to] attract people we are not currently attracting. A number of universities are thinking about stopping relevant programmes as they don’t have the take-up. We need to tackle issues at grass roots level. We don’t have enough people studying these programmes. And we can’t resolve the problem unless we attract more people.”

Ethny Childs, communities & partnership lead at IES, concurred, pointing to particular difficulties recruiting at the graduate level and particularly in hydrogeology.

The IES report referred to the fact that in 2017, the environment industry was the second least diverse in UK, with 3.5% non-white employees as compared with 19% across all occupations. This is still a problem, the report states, adding that employers can’t access the wide array of backgrounds and experiences that will help them generate the ideas and output that the environmental sector needs.

Stereotyping, discrimination and isolation
Key findings of the report include a lack of empathetic understanding about why diversity is important, leading to inefficient outcomes. It also finds that ethnic minority professionals face stereotyping and discrimination, resulting in exclusion from networks and mentorship, and a lack of opportunities for growth.

Ethnic minority professionals also reported feelings of isolation, voicelessness, and an absence of belonging. Gender seems to intersect with ethnicity to disadvantage women of colour. An external perception of the environment sector as racially white and financially middle class leads to distortions in defined employment opportunities.

James Bickle, senior consultant with sustainability consultancy Delta-Simons, says clients are now becoming more environmentally aware, and environmental laws and work practices (including how data is analysed) are changing.

“We need to recruit from a diverse pool to keep up,” said Bickle. “The greater the diversity of the workforce, the greater the diversity in skills [we] have access to.” There has been an improvement in the ethnic diversity of the profession, but there is still a way to go, he added. The Environment Analyst early careers survey, which interviewed 300 participants, came up with three themes: diversity, awareness, and retention — and found that purpose is a key motivator.

So how does the brownfield industry improve how it is perceived as an employer, keep and upskill the people already working in it, and attract new people?

Holistic, multi-layered solutions needed
Referring to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), Ethny Childs said there needs to be an understanding that the issue is systemic and institutional, requiring holistic, multi-layered solutions and evidence-based interventions. “The siloed approach won’t work,” she said.

Recommendations from the IES report include improving the visibility of employment opportunities within the sector through changes to educational curriculums and training resources for careers advisors; initiatives to increase the attraction and accessibility for ethic minority individuals, like bursaries; building an open, honest and supportive organisational culture; defining clear career opportunities and channels for growth; creating participatory, conscious and dynamic organisational EDI initiatives with feedback; more thoughtful creation of EDI roles; practising more empathy towards one another; and constant education about the socio-political environment.

Employers should show best practice in recruitment and internal training and develop methods to improve experiences outside the office. Diversity clauses should be put into contracts.

Roni Savage said it is important to be intentional about what EDI means to [an organisation] and the reason behind it. “Ask why this is being done. It is not just a box ticking exercise. It is the right thing to do across any sector. People are entitled to have an opportunity to work in an industry that suits their talents,” she said.

And Savage had some advice for recruiters, and some of those in the audience, where the average experience in the industry is 15+ years. “When recruiting, ask how you make a decision – do you decide on who is most like you? Or who is the most talented. People say the latter, but research says it is the people we can relate to the best. The key is being intentional about it.”

It is not just about race and gender, she added – people from different backgrounds may not present as well but that doesn’t mean they have less talent.

For Bickle, improving diversity in the industry is not just about ethnicity. “We need to capture diversity in skill sets, experience, and backgrounds. We need to make sure there are entry routes, to make it more acceptable. There is untapped potential in apprenticeships and work experience.”

Online seminar chair Carrie Rose, associate technical director at Atkins and chair of the EDI subgroup of the Specialists in Land Condition Register (SiLC), said CPD opportunities are key to keeping staff. “It is important to get involved in networks with opportunities arising from peer-to-peer learning. Mentorship and reverse mentoring are a good way to build skills and knowledge.”

Bickle said there is a lot of competition regarding pay. “It is one of the main reasons people leave. Other factors driving early career professionals to leave the industry are feeling undervalued and that their work is not making a meaningful difference.”

But he added: “There are perks beyond pay. The main driver is helping tackle issues and working on varied projects. That should frame the work we do. Our work has a positive impact. We should make people feel they are making a meaningful difference. We should celebrate internally and externally.”

Catch them at school age
And to attract new people to the profession, Roni Savage says we should focus on secondary and university level students, but it is also important to catch them at the primary school stage, years 4-6, when you can stimulate their minds.

“We need to raise awareness of the industry so there is greater recruitment potential. Most only find out about the industry at university level. Are we doing enough to inform schools about the environment and brownfield? Is there enough sustainability in brownfield – like putting more relevant content in geography and chemistry? Could we offer more work internships?

“Schools don’t know what earth sciences or geology means, or contaminated land. They know what civil engineering is but have no idea about geotech or environmental engineering. We have to explain what our job means. We need to get into schools and put it on posters and adverts. We want to make our industry a lot more attractive – and that it is not just about going out on sites and digging soil. We have to show diversity and opportunity in our industry, and it needs to be promoted early on.”

Read the original article here.

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