Principal Thoughts: Encouraging widening participation in the Built Environment

Posted on: 2020-05-18

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. This month, Ashley reflects on the Built Environment’s burgeoning widening participation initiatives and how UCEM is doing its bit to support a more diverse workforce in the sector.


It is of critical importance that the Built Environment attracts talent from non-traditional backgrounds.

Apprenticeships have been a huge driver in attracting young people who, perhaps, wouldn’t have previously pursued a career in the sector, and we remain hugely committed to supporting apprentices during this time, but more direct and targeted action is needed to create a diverse workforce.

State of play

A recent report found that only one-in-eight construction workers are women and just 5.4% of workers are from a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background. Out of the working-age population in the UK, 18% are disabled and yet only 9.3% of the construction labour force is disabled. Anecdotally, many of those pursuing careers in the Built Environment come from an affluent background, often knowing about the sector because a family member works in the industry.

The only way to widen participation in the sector is to look at the demographics and actively encourage underrepresented groups to consider a career in the Built Environment.

Step-change in 2016

Greater focus on the demographics of people working within the sector has been evident over the past few years and, looking back, 2016 seems to be a key year for the step-change which has been in place since.

Firstly, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) published its research report titled Exploring the Impact of the Ageing Population on the Workforce and Built Environment. The research identified how the sector was heavily reliant on older workers and struggled to attract new recruits. This concern was made more stark by the fact that the research stated how the construction industry would need to find 224,000 new recruits by 2019.

Another important document which provoked a lot of discourse in 2016 was Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report which painted a worrying picture for the construction industry. Among the issues identified for the industry going forward was labour shortages with a one of the 10 recommendations concerning outreach in an attempt to attract more talent into construction.

Both reports made those working in the sector sit up and listen and, since then, and in tandem with greater external scrutiny such as mandatory gender pay-gap reports, the Built Environment has noticeably evaluated itself more critically.

A common theme highlighted in both reports was the shortage of skills in the sector. This related to both the number of people working in the Built Environment and the skills possessed by the workforce. A significant barrier to boosting the former was the fragmented way in which the sector operates and this was something we looked to address when we hosted a Built Environment Skills Summit in 2017.

‘Male, pale and stale’

The Summit brought together representatives from across the sector to identify how we could address the skills shortage and one of the main outcomes identified in the subsequent report was the need to work on a collaborative approach. More than once, the workforce was referred to as ‘pale, male and stale’ – a slightly vulgar way of putting it but apt nonetheless as it became a ubiquitous part of business lexicon. Pale as the BAME community was not proportionally represented; male as women accounted for a small percentage of the workforce; and (slightly cruelly) stale referring to the predominantly older demographic in situ.

Whatever way you phrase it, the sector lacked diversity and targeting talent from the identified underrepresented groups would both broaden the culture within the sector and boost the numbers seeking such careers.

Growing focus on widening participation

In the past few years, the sector seems to have grasped the nettle and made a concerted effort to create a more diverse workforce. Initiatives such as the CITB’s Pathways into Construction programme demonstrate the growing willingness to shake up the sector’s traditional demographic.

There has been a rise in the visibility of underrepresented groups in the Built Environment through such organisations as BAME in Property, DiverseCity Surveyors, Women in Property and The Land Collective, set up by our MSc Real Estate student, Sarah Hayford.

Our commitment to widening participation

At UCEM, we recognise that we have a role to play in widening participation and this is one of our eight core focuses within the long-term vision and strategy we released last year.

The specific goals relating to widening participation are embedded in our Access and Participation Plan which are part of our policies.

  • Building People

A key part of this strategy is being realised through the work being undertaken by Building People which is a technology platform which seeks to connect people to opportunities within the Built Environment.

By bringing together organisations working on behalf of underrepresented groups with employers seeking employees, and with widening participation objectives of their own, Building People is doing a fantastic job for inclusion in the sector.

I’m proud that we took the step of acquiring Building People in 2018 when the organisation, led by Rebecca Lovelace, was struggling for funding.

Rebecca had this great idea and it made sense to support her, with her work in our Research, Innovation & Partnerships Team detailed in a blog about the team (including Rebecca’s recollection of how we crossed paths!).

  • Student outreach

Another key piece of the jigsaw in our widening participation aspirations is our Student Outreach Team. The team is led by Nikki Bulteel, who worked in surveying before moving into academia with us and now uses her passion to promote the sector as Student Outreach Manager.

Her team includes our Disability and Wellbeing Service and Careers Service, and promotes the sector at external events while also supporting our students to be successful.

Nikki has recently assembled Student Reps representing our BAME students, users of our Disability and Wellbeing Service, sustainability and the student community, in general. It’s important we hear the viewpoints of our students and the feedback we have received is already provoking discussions on how we can improve as an institution and be more inclusive.

The student voice is something which has been formally represented by our Student Trustees, from the first appointment of David Mason a couple of years ago to his successor, Phoebe Farrell, and now, the addition of a second Student Trustee in Ella Campbell.

I remember the doubts when the idea of a Student Trustee was first floated but every Board member is now 100% behind it, with some even remarking on it being the best decision the Board has ever made!

  • COVID-19 and widening participation

Despite the current situation, we remain as committed as ever to widening participation in the Built Environment.

Earlier this month, we launched a bespoke BSc Access Module for Year 13 students at a heavily discounted rate to support those wishing to get ahead with their university studies. The Chartered Surveyors Training Trust (CSTT) then kindly offered to sponsor up to 50 students on the module for free with the offer made available specifically from those in underrepresented groups in the sector.

We also launched CPD training modules for services veterans wishing to learn more about the construction industry with BuildForce as part of our growing commitment to support ex-Armed Services personnel.

Widening participation is about increasing the numbers of those in a sector, and we have offered to teach other universities’ students via our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) on a temporary basis to ensure students in Built Environment disciplines can continue to access the education they need during this pandemic.

Getting there

The statistics show there is a way to go but I firmly believe the work taken over the last few years to make the Built Environment more inclusive and diverse will have the desired effect.

We are pleased with the progress we have been making at UCEM to open up Built Environment education for as large a group of students as possible, and this is evident in the infographics about our current undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts. The infographics reveal the diverse student base we have across the globe aged from 18 to 72 years old, and that 95 students receive some kind of financial support from us, 131 students are supported with a plan from our Disability and Wellbeing Service and 879 students are from a BAME background.

We will continue to do our bit at UCEM to widen participation and help as many people as possible access our degrees to gain the qualifications needed to access or progress in the sector.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver approved apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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