Increase in female skilled labour as industry casts out a wider net

Skills shortages in the regional construction industry have increased the role of women in the sector, but more needs to be done to address the imbalance, reports Monika Grzesik.

Much attention has been given recently to the severe skills shortage plaguing the construction industry in the Middle East.

A survey last year by GulfTalent revealed that as the Gulf construction sector continues its rapid growth, it faces severe staffing challenges as companies compete for a limited supply of skilled labour.

The study warned that the supply of engineering and managerial talent is not keeping up with demand, leading to acute shortages in areas including structural specialists, quantity surveyors, planning engineers, project directors, design managers, contract administrators and urban planners.

Some construction companies are now turning towards the female workforce in order to combat this problem. But with women still only accounting for a minority of the workforce, it is clear that much more needs to be done by the region's construction industry to use the massive potential, skills and resources that this section of the labour market could offer.

"We have started to employ women due to the scarcity of employees generally in the construction sector, so now women are starting to play a role, but most of the roles they take on are office-based, such as administration, secretarial or technical office engineers," said Mariam Azmy, human resources manager of contractor ASGC. "You will not find women on construction sites or as a head of department, head of safety or head of contracts."

This trend for women to be found in junior level and support roles is a common one in an industry where high level jobs appear to be reserved almost exclusively for men. Asha Balachandran, MRICS, change control manager, De Leeuw Middle East said that women face barriers to gaining senior positions, and argued that more needs to be done by construction companies to attract women into managerial roles.

"In the UAE there are lots of female professionals in fields like design or surveying, but you seldom find women in senior positions. Female managers, in my opinion, are natural team players, with human relations and interpersonal skills. If the industry doesn't hire them it's bad for women who are missing out on a challenging career, and it's also bad for the construction industry, which is failing to utilise a good pool of skill and talent."

Balachandran added: "I have been here for over 11 years and although I haven't found too much difficulty with being a woman in the industry, sometimes I have lost out on senior positions."

As well as possessing positive skills and traits, women could add value to the industry in other ways.

Nadia Bakhurji, an architect and the only female member of the Saudi Engineers Council, said there is a vital need for women in construction, particularly in Saudi Arabia. She predicts that the employment market for Saudi women is set to expand as clients realise the benefits of dealing with a woman.

"There is a niche for female architects, engineers and designers in Saudi Arabia," she said.

"A lot of people want to deal with a woman; it makes a lot of people more comfortable.

"Clients have finally realised that it's a good idea to have females working for them. So the demand for female professionals is growing," she added.

One barrier to increasing the number of women in higher-level jobs is the lack of trained and experienced females available in the market. According to Charlie Parish of recruitment firm Hays, in terms of project management roles, there are very few females with the necessary skills and experience available.

"Purely from a recruitment point of view we just don't get any female candidates in this area. It's very much a male dominated industry," he said.

"Generally construction and project managers tend to be men. It's nothing to do with employers not wanting to recruit women; if there were qualified female project managers on the scene with the right background they would take them on.

"In the UK, there is a big push towards getting more women into the industry because of the skills shortage. It's down to the universities making their degree courses attractive to women," he added.

Azmy agreed: "If you go back to university levels, men will far out number women in courses such as engineering. That's why women are not employed much. More degree programmes should be set up to attract women."

Having always been guilty of fostering a male-only image, it is clear that in order to sustain the long-term health of the industry, more needs to be done to raise awareness about construction as a viable career path for women in the region.

"The ‘last castle' men are trying to protect is the construction industry," said Hande Karabatak, regional human resources manager, WSP at the recent ‘HR in construction summit' in Dubai. "It definitely needs to change. I think the first thing needed is a strategy from corporate levels. Companies need to diversify their business and workforce. No doubt women will bring more fun and enjoyment to the industry."

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