The Future of the Construction Industry: Why Diversity Matters

construction industry diversity

If you're in the construction industry, you may have missed an acronym that corporate America has relied on for a while now: DEI.

DEI stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. It's a concept that acknowledges that diversity alone isn't enough – you need diverse voices to be included in the conversation, and to do that, you need to ensure they're treated equitably.

The State of Diversity in the Construction Industry

When it comes to DEI, the construction industry lags so far behind the rest of the country that it's alarming.

As of 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction workforce is 87.9% white and 89% male.

That says a lot by itself, but when you compare the industry's numbers of historically underrepresented groups to the entire U.S. workforce, the picture is clear:

 

Construction

All Industries

Women

11%

47%

Black or African American

6.3%

12.3%

Asian

2.1%

6.6%

Hispanic or Latino

32.6%

18.0%

Black and Asian workers are deeply underrepresented in construction, and while Hispanic or Latinx workers are generally well-represented, they're underrepresented in leadership roles.

Gender parity is even worse than it looks at first glance. Because while 11% of construction employees are female, most of them work in sales and administrative roles, not in the trades.

According to the National Association of Home Builders' 2022 data, women only make up 3.7% of construction trades and labor. They're also poorly represented in leadership roles of any type.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of diversity creates a hostile environment for many.

A survey by the construction industry publication Construction Dive in 2020 revealed that racist incidents are a common occurrence in construction job sites. Of the readers that responded, 42% had seen racist graffiti, 38% heard verbal abuse or racial slurs, 31% had seen minorities given undesirable tasks, 25% knew of workers who didn't get hired because of their race, and 15% had seen a noose or other racist object on the job.

Worse, 77% of respondents said nothing was done to address these problems.

A survey by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) in 2021 also found a high incidence of discrimination and prejudice.

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Why Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Matter in Construction

So, why does this matter aside from some abstract sense of fairness?

Well, the construction industry has been experiencing an increasingly problematic labor shortage for years. Old-fashioned recruiting methods have repeatedly proven incapable of filling the gaps. The construction industry's future is diverse, or there isn't a future at all.

Adapt or die.

The groups that are being excluded by harassment, habit, or simply by "the normal way of doing business" represent untapped pools of talent. But it's a problem that clearly won't fix itself. You need to make an effort to recruit, train, and welcome people who may have avoided the trades in the past – either due to reputation or direct experience.

The good news is that fostering an inclusive, equitable, and civil workplace won't just attract one or two types of candidates. People from all walks of life appreciate a workplace without hostility and harassment. If your company puts a visible effort into fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, you'll automatically appeal to younger workers of all backgrounds.

Construction DEI Tips

Starting a construction DEI program from scratch can be intimidating and overwhelming – here are some tips and best practices to get you started.

Give It More Than Lip Service

In NIBS' 2021 survey, respondents revealed that 43% of their employers already had some DEI program – and yet, discrimination and harassment were still reportedly rampant.

That's because a paper policy is little better than no policy at all.

Your DEI policies must be discussed, taught, enforced, and lived to achieve results. You need to dedicate time, money, and other resources to a program. Leadership needs to take it seriously. Management needs to take it seriously. Workers need to see that you mean to create an inclusive and equitable workplace for everyone.

One way to hold yourself accountable is to make your construction diversity goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Track your progress and adjust your efforts with specific achievements in mind.

Establish Zero Tolerance

A zero-tolerance policy for harassment, discrimination, and bullying is a must-take first step for your DEI program.

After all, how well do you think your diverse recruiting efforts will go if new workers experience racial slurs on Day One?

Your anti-harassment policies need to be enforceable.

Identify and Remove Barriers to Diversity in Construction

Being bullied on the job is only one barrier to recruiting and retaining a non-white, non-male construction force.

Other, very real obstacles keep people from getting hired or staying on the job.

For example, most construction gear and equipment are designed and sized for men. This is a huge barrier to women in the trades. It's unsafe and sends a clear message about who you're prepared to accommodate on the job. Making sure you have appropriate equipment for all new workers should be a top priority, and it may require special effort at first.

Language barriers can be another very real and practical consideration. You need at least one person, manager, and supervisor who speak the relevant language(s), and you also need language-appropriate training materials and illustrative visual aids.

Hiring criteria will be a big can of worms. Since there are few women and minorities in the trades, the only way to hire women and minorities is to consider applicants with less experience. That can be scary! It also means you may need to invest more heavily in onboarding, on-the-job training, and mentoring programs than you have in the past.

You'll need to consider non-traditional sources of experience (like hobbies), write job descriptions to invite applicants that may not have every "required" skill, and consider alternate recruiting strategies.

Get Help

Hiring consulting firms or seeking outside diversity, equity, and inclusion experts can also be enormously helpful. Why reinvent the wheel? DEI experts understand what works and what doesn't so that you can get actual results from your time, money, and effort.

For best results, look for construction diversity specialists, DEI experts who have a work history in construction, or those that have worked in a similar industry.

The Bottom Line

The future of construction is diverse, inclusive, and welcoming. But introducing more diversity in the construction industry will require revised hiring practices, paradigm adjustments, and anti-harassment policies with teeth.