Panel Discussions with Katriina Tahka: Diversity in the Construction Industry

It’s been a busy few weeks for industry conferences and we have been delighted to see diversity and inclusion, gender equality and mental health featured highly on the agendas. This is in itself a great step in the right direction and shows that it is a critical business issue.  Our CEO Katriina Tahka was invited to speak at the National Roads and Traffic Expo and Sydney Build Expo drawing on her expertise on these topics.

In this article we’ve synthesised the key themes discussed on these panels which provided an amazing insight into the change needed in the construction industry and the steps that need to be taken in order to achieve these goals of increasing both diversity and inclusion.

Women in Construction – Has anything really Changed?

The construction industry is facing a critical skill shortage. Despite a lot of companies believing Covid and the two-year pause on skilled migration is to blame, there is a lot more contributing the to the issue. Problems revolving around lack of understanding about the opportunities in the industry amongst young people, unclear career progression prospects, pervasive discrimination and bullying behaviours, and an unhealthy excessive work hours culture contributing to a industry which has extremely high suicide rates.

This contributes to a significant image problem which is causing this people & skills shortage. So how do we overcome these problem? It is important we rethink career pathways and our methods of communication about the potential for a breadth of jobs across the whole industry. It is also important to realise that we do not have a people shortage in Australia generally – Australia is diverse, people who are willing to work more are available, construction companies just haven’t fully tapped into a diverse pool of talent and diversified their search for new people to work in the industry.

In recent years we have seen changes including more pathway programs being introduced in schools to encourage people to work in construction as well as attracting people who are seeking a career change. However, most of those new incoming employees found constructions job through their own personal network, which is a problem because not everyone has a familiar pathway into construction. There has needs to be a dramatic shift in  how we advertise construction jobs with a focus on looking beyond just construction experience for transferrable skills. We need to start looking for and hiring 50/50 because men and women are both equally capable. There needs to be long- and short-term solutions including targeting women to be in leadership roles, learning from other industries progresses and setting higher benchmarks to achieve. And without any doubt there shouldn’t be any unexplainable gaps in pay.

Diversity in Roads Construction Industry

The generations of workers who are coming through now, who are exiting high school and figuring out what to do next they will not put up with poor working conditions.  Good pay alone will not be enough to make young people work in poor conditions and they will leave. We need really significant structural change and behavioural change and that has to start at a high level to make a real difference. It’s not enough to go “oh we’ll have another women’s program over there, give them some cheese and biccies and we’ll sort this stuff out”. That is not going to do it anymore, no more pointless events, no more cheese and biccies, let’s get the clients and contractors working on resolving the real issues that are the heart of what is driving long hours of work and health issues on site – which starts with the procurement process.

There has been a lot of years and stand alone programs which have made individuals gains and helped individual people but if we really want to crack this nut it will take a very focused multi-pronged collective cultural change focus. That’s why it’s so good to see peak bodies like ACA, Roads Australia, AFPA tackle culture change at an industry level and bring together member organisations collectively to set the pathway forward. Let’s face it most of the infrastructure budget is being led by government spending at a state and federal level and that is what is going to drive behaviour change. So we have to be talking to the clients who control the budget, we’ve got to be talking to the contractors who are actually delivering the work, and the human beings on site so that we can create human friendly workplaces.

Poor mental health is a major factor holding the industry back

This industry is hell bent on making sure people are physically safe in the workplace but behaves as though it does not care (equally) about mental health. There is only a small whisper of wellbeing amongst all the safety talk. Yet the suicide rate in construction is 2 x the national average. By doing nothing to improve these conditions it is costing the industry $7.98 billion dollars in lost time due to workplace injuries and mental illness and lost productivity as assessed in the recent Cost of Doing Nothing Report[1].

Kat shared how Project 5: A Weekend for Every Worker Report[2] provided the industry with a real life case study of traditional thinking can be challenged. In Project 5 workers agreed to work a 5-day work week instead of the traditional 6 days, 75% were willing to sacrifice their overtime in order to have their weekends back.  The results were overwhelmingly positive as measured in by all key factors of worker wellbeing as well as productivity and project costs. Even team cohesion on site improved as result of happier workers who benefited from having a 2 day rest where they could spend quality time with their family and friends. If you haven’t read the full report we encourage you to do so.

Human innovation is what is needed at a workforce level so that we get the structural change that’s needed.

Starting from the Top – to Drive Diversity and Inclusion in Construction

Diversity is normal. We see diversity every day in the schools, shops, places we live and yet all the time, organisations continue to say they have a diversity problem. No you don’t, you have an inclusion problem if your workforce does not look like the community around you. We need to stop blaming ‘diverse people’ for not being in your organisation.

The bonus in this is that far from being a problem, diversity can be the solution for the massive skills shortage we are going to face in Australia imminently.  40% of the Australian workforce will retire in the next 15 years, so the current skills crisis is only going to worsen and there is not a sufficient flow of new people entering the workforce to solve the problem. On current patterns of behaviour we are going to go backwards. Hidden behind the low unemployment figures are the under employment statistics, which reveal that the under employment of women in Australia is disproportionately high, the under employment of youth in Australia is extremely high (up to around 15-16%). Underemployment of people who recently arrived in Australia is also extremely high.   So the only people we are running out of in Australia is the people we like to hire over and over again.  So by becoming more inclusive of our Indigenous Australians, mature aged people, our youth, our women , new arrivals, people with a disability, there is an opportunity available to everyone to actually boost your workforce.  So why aren’t we doing it?

Some argue that diversity of thinking can make it harder to reach a consensus decision – but doesn’t that process of healthy debate produce a better decision? I haven’t seen a company that doesn’t have growth and/or innovation on their strategy in a long time. How are organisations going to innovate if they continue to have a group of likeminded people talking about same issues through the same lens and in many cases not even consulting with people from the community they are designing products and solutions for.  It is a well-researched fact that divergent thinking produces better decision making and business outcomes and you can only get that by including a diverse range of  people in your workforce in the first place.

A classic example is an we recently worked with organisation who was talking about the future of work and how do they attract more people to their company and the youngest person in the conversation was 45 years old. When I suggested that they get the views of a young person, guess what, they got a 35-year-old in the room!  

So what can we do? We need to elevate the conversation to a new level.  Let start talking about the fact this is about all humans at work and how do we create human friendly workplaces that are inclusive of everyone and all of our wonderful identities that we bring that work. And that starts with having an inclusive culture, not an inclusion program.

Inclusion isn’t a program that you can buy, inclusion is how it feels to be at work, and who is in the workforce, and do they feel valued and respected equally? Yes it does need to be role modelled at the top, we need to hear leaders genuinely say this is important, we are going to get inclusion right, we are going to have a place to work where everyone feels respected. When people feel like that you won’t have a retention problem and we won’t need to still be talking about this in another 10 years hopefully!


[1] Cost of Doing Nothing Report 2021 BIS Oxford Economics

[2] Galea N, Ramia I, Sharma A, Saunders I (2021) Project 5: A Weekend for Every Worker Report’ UNSW Sydney