Cathy Strydom, human resources manager at GVK-Siya Zama in the Eastern Cape, urges young women to consider the built industry as a viable career path.
The composition of the domestic built industry has undergone notable changes over the last 10 years. Traditionally, gender parity within the industry has been heavily skewed towards males. There was a time, not too long ago, when male applicants outnumbered their female counterparts by 20:1. While a discrepancy remains, the industry continues to evolve into a more inclusive space.
Built industry’s value proposition
The sector’s drawcard is the diverse nature of the work. Various elements are needed to come together for a project to be conceptualised, initiated, and delivered. Commercial, production and support teams all work alongside one another and the hallmark of effective professionals is their appreciation of how the different moving parts come together.
The variety of occupations available under the umbrella of construction makes the industry an attractive destination for young professionals with critical and technical skills, even if they don’t yet know what their niche is. Often, graduates enter the business with a quantity surveying or construction management qualification and then later identify their strengths and find their niche within those broad fields, switching their professional focus over time following exposure in the business.
My personal career journey is a testament to the opportunities for professional growth offered by the industry. From joining the company as a filing clerk some 25 years ago, I now enjoy sharing the invaluable institutional knowledge, insights and learnings gained with the new generation and cohort of Building Engineering and Built environment (EBE) professionals.
The challenge of brain and skills drain
Losing promising young talent to foreign markets is a challenge that is not unique to the construction industry. GVK-Siya Zama’s insights suggest that professionals in their late 20s to mid-30s, and even into their 40s, are among the most likely to migrate abroad in search of better employment opportunities. This demographic’s preferred destinations are countries in the Middle East region, Ireland and New Zealand, which offer highly competitive salaries for EBE professionals.
If South Africa is to truly evolve into an infrastructure-led economy as envisioned by the government’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan or the more recently published National Infrastructure Plan 2050, the country must prioritise skills retention in the long term.
While there are many funding and support mechanisms for young people in tertiary education, once they transition into the professional environment, upskilling and ongoing training falls to employers who struggle with the limited availability of training resources. Training budgets are always under pressure and companies must rely on on-the-job training of employees which is insufficient if the goal is to develop well-rounded and competent professionals. A possible solution may be to reimagine how skills development levies are utilised and by training young graduates in much-needed job-specific skills such as construction contracts and programming to align to business-specific needs.
Post-Covid-19 employment opportunities as the industry recovers
The pandemic dealt a staggering blow to business, and for the construction industry, it was no different. In fact, the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) reported that the industry shrank by an estimated 20% following the pandemic, as spending that was reserved for infrastructure was redirected to alleviate the economic and social crisis facing the country.
As we move further away from the economic shock of the pandemic, and the R340 billion in construction pipeline investments made by the government begin to trickle down, the sector’s outlook may be increasingly positive.
While women in support roles have risen to senior management positions, both regionally and at group level, such trailblazers may still be the exception rather than the norm. Nevertheless, it remains our collective responsibility to nudge, encourage and support young women, as this will ensure that the built industry becomes the diverse and inclusive space we all envision it to be.