Addressing the Skills Shortage by Accommodating People with Disabilities

Few more pressing issues face the construction industry than the talent shortage, but many employers overlook a swathe of candidates with much to offer – those with a disability.

Recent Autodesk research in the Nordics found 84% of companies are finding it difficult to recruit, with 32% unable to find the skills they need. At a time when construction needs to attract as wide a talent pool as possible, people with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in the industry, however. 

In fact, research by the Considerate Constructors Scheme found that disability is seen as the protected characteristic with the biggest lack of diversity in the industry. Over 86.3% of 800 or so UK  professionals surveyed by the Scheme in 2021 said having any protected characteristic – including a disability – could be a barrier to working in construction.

And as a sector with an ever-increasing skills shortage, construction companies should be considering ways to encourage more people than ever to pursue a career in the industry.

There is certainly room for improvement when it comes to hiring and retaining people with a disability into roles in construction. A 2017 survey from industry body GoConstruct found nearly 200,000 people working in construction in the UK were registered disabled. This equates to over 9% of the total workforce (just over 2.1 million employees). Yet this is significantly lower than the 20% of adults with a disability who are able to work.

The compelling case for diversity

The changing nature of the construction industry also opens doors to many talented people who might not previously have considered working in the sector. Every industry is digital to some degree now and construction is no exception as Industry 4.0 kicks in. Emerging technology such as virtual and augmented reality tools, for example, support collaboration and expertise-sharing regardless of physical location. 

Given the vital importance of digital tools in design, build, operations and maintenance, those hiring can and must throw the net wider than would have been the case in the past. 

Large-scale construction projects, in particular, need a diverse crew of project managers, data analysts, system architects and other specialists to plan and manage them, and to operate new technologies such as offsite manufacturing and 3D printing.

Furthermore, requests for proposals and tenders increasingly specify the need for those responding to outline their diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) strategy and initiatives. Not only that, but younger employees in particular tend to prize DEI and favour employers they deem to be fair and inclusive. 

In a sector where four in five companies are recruiting amid a talent shortage, it’s clear construction firms cannot afford to ignore diversity and inclusion. 

Committing to culture change in the industry

DEI now makes up a key cornerstone of company culture. Morale, motivation and productivity all typically thrive when companies focus on building a strong culture and a diverse workforce. Not only that, but having more diverse perspectives inevitably leads to fresher ideas and more innovative thinking. 

The more diverse your workforce is, the more diverse and innovative ideas your people will generate. At the same time, enhanced digital tools increase trust and support culture change in the industry, enabling improved communication, collaboration and productivity for everyone, including those of differing abilities. 

Moreover, promoting diversity and fostering diversity of thought can also help to mitigate against errors in the industry, as discussed during a 2021 forum hosted by the Get It Right Initiative.

Understanding disability and related rights

To create the right culture to attract and support workers with disabilities, it’s vital to get a handle on the true nature of disability at work. Not all disabilities are visible and nor does a disability prevent someone from thriving in a fulfilling career. 

As industry body GoConstruct explains, “It is a common misconception that a disability means somebody in a wheelchair. Disabilities include sensory impairments, mental illness, autism, communication impairments, physical coordination issues and impairments to memory and concentration.”

It’s also important to remember that EU equality legislation is legally binding across all 27 member states. It not only prohibits discrimination at work on the grounds of disability and other protected characteristics, but also says employers must take appropriate measures “to accommodate and enable persons with disabilities to have access to, participate in or advance in employment or undergo training”.  

Remember that belonging matters

For any employee to thrive, they need to feel valued and believe they can be authentic at work. That’s true in construction as in any other industry. 

Along with addressing diversity and disability accommodations in 1:1s, team meetings and company meetings, companies can show their commitment by running internal campaigns and dedicating resources to diversity.

The Considerate Constructors Scheme, for example, suggests appointing a Fairness, Inclusion & Respect ambassador. “They are expected to embody the principles of FIR: work collaboratively, whilst stepping in to take action, challenge behaviours and positively impact workplace culture,” explains the Scheme.  

Cultivating and supporting internal networks is also vital as these can be extraordinary forces for change. Building and civil engineering company Farrans, for example, has an internal network for underrepresented and minority groups within its workforce across the UK and Ireland. 

It sees the benefits of its DNA (Diversify, Nurture, Accept) network as manifold, including greater acceptance of diversity, confidence building, improving working relationships and empowering people to grow and lead. 

Make reasonable adjustments

A DEI strategy alone is not enough when it comes to creating a truly diverse workforce. When it comes to accommodating those with disabilities, companies need to examine their processes and see where they need to make changes. 

As GoConstruct explains, “In practical terms in construction, a reasonable adjustment may be as simple as providing a particular type of control on a piece of machinery.

“In legal terms, adjustments can aim to make sure that, as far as is reasonable, a disabled worker has the same access to everything that is involved in doing and keeping a job as a non-disabled person.” 

One step any company can take, for example, is to ensure its website and internal communication channels are fully accessible to all. 

Communicate commitment to diversity

Clear communication around the accommodations available to those with a disability is crucial. Encourage those with a hidden disability to disclose it in confidence to their manager and pledge openly that the firm will make all reasonable accommodations needed. 

Make sure staff without a disability are also fully aware of the rights and capabilities of disabled colleagues and candidates. Offer training and awareness sessions to address unconscious bias and showcase role models where possible. Mutual support and understanding is key when it comes to building high-performing, happy teams. 

Encourage subcontractors to develop and implement their own DEI strategies as well, and offer them guidance as needed. Given the nature of the industry and the fragmented workforce on many projects, it’s important to collaborate across the board when it comes to boosting DEI. 

Make use of financial supports

Governments often offer employment-related grants to people with disabilities and to employers. In the UK, for example, the Access to Work scheme provides grants to people with disabilities to help them start working, stay in work, move into self-employment or start a business.

Likewise, employers can get financial assistance through the same scheme to cover the cost of any new equipment needed when employing someone with a disability.

Use technology to its full potential

Technological advancements offer a significant boon to employers keen to foster diversity and give opportunities to as many employees and candidates as possible. 

Connected BIM, with its end-to-end use of digital models throughout the construction lifecycle – preconstruction, site construction, and operations and maintenance – creates job opportunities for people with a diversity of skills and abilities, while keeping them closely connected as a team.

“Software such as Autodesk Construction Cloud can support a more diverse environment by facilitating collaboration and communication, said XXX, Autodesk XXX. “Many disabilities are not physical and these sophisticated tools can enable people to bring valuable skills and experience to construction projects in a way that would not have been possible in the past.

Without question, putting measures in  place to support and attract a more diverse range of people to work in construction, including those with disabilities, can bring any firm valuable skills and diverse perspective. When it comes to attracting and retaining talent in today’s pressurised employment market, it’s those firms that are mindful about DEI that will see success.

Learn more about the skills shortages facing construction in the Nordics by downloading our full report Nordics Construction 2023: Addressing the Skills and Talent Challenges for the Future Workforce 

Aisling Purcell

As Regional Content Manager at Autodesk Construction Solutions, Aisling Purcell leads the content strategy, customer reference, and construction PR programme for Autodesk Construction Cloud in EMEA. Partnering with local and global teams, she develops content that supports local and worldwide marketing and sales campaigns, positioning Autodesk as a thought leader and trusted partner in the construction industry.