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“Wouldn’t you rather work in fashion?” Image by ASphotofamily on Freepik

Lisa-Jayne Cook, an IOR trustee and chair of the organisation’s Women in RACHP Network, explains in an article published in the UK’s RAC newsletter, how diversity and inclusion must be treated as an opportunity for meaningfully improving skills and capabilities within the cooling sector and not just an ‘issue’ to be tackled.

It is well-documented that we have a significant skills gap in the UK (and South Africa) when it comes to STEM careers. This is having a notable impact on the HVACR sector’s ability to expand and become more innovative.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology estimates this shortfall in interest has now exceeded 173 000 workers across STEM sectors, with an estimated cost to the economy of R30bn per year.

This shortfall equates to an average of 10 unfilled roles per business in the UK. Putting this into perspective, approximately 49% of engineering businesses are experiencing difficulties recruiting workers with the skills they need.

Our industry faces an even bigger challenge when it comes to attracting new talent, due to our hidden nature, which is further compounded by the impression that we are not as glamorous as some of the more popular sectors. Aerospace is one such industry that comes to mind.

Diversity in STEM, engineering, and more specifically, our industry, has been a key issue at the top of the agenda for some years now. But in my opinion, we are looking at it from the wrong angle.

Diversity and inclusion are not ‘issues to be tackled’, but an opportunity to close the skills gap and deepen our talent pool, bringing new ideas, new outlooks and new problem-solving techniques – as well as new attitudes.

Any efforts to make the sector more attractive to women and individuals from different ethnic backgrounds will in turn drive innovation, accelerating our journey on the path to net zero.

Recent improvements

I am not saying that things have not improved. I am certain we will all agree that representation of women and other minorities in our sector is on the up. Only last year did we see Gemma Dormer of J&E Hall scoop the Gold at the RAC and IOR National Student of the Year – the first time a female engineer has achieved this accolade.

Gemma demonstrates that when we embrace diversity, women will not only be attracted to our sector, but they can – and will – thrive here. What we really need to see improve is the pace of change in becoming a more diverse workforce.

Membership statistics for the Institute of Refrigeration demonstrate the scale of change required. The organisation has seen the proportion of female subscribers increase from a mere 2% in 2016 to the 4% we sit at today. Improving this is going to require a culture transformation. Herein is the sticking point. The stereotypes and culture we are challenging are deeply embedded into the very fabric of our industry.  Behaviours, assumptions, herd mentality and unconscious biases all need to be addressed to make the required change.

Only last month, I was informed of a shocking response from a senior leader in an important engineering firm when challenged on their view on the need to address gender imbalance in the organisation. They were asked specifically about the number of women, or lack thereof, in senior leadership roles.

The response was a suggestion that an engineering company would be ‘naturally’ more appealing to men. Women, the individual said, preferred careers in fashion or other similar industries.

I found this response very typical of companies who are struggling to recruit and retain women.

All too often we hear: “Where are all the women? We advertise the roles, but women never apply.”

Very rarely do we hear the question: “What can we do to be more attractive to women and other minorities?” This highlights how the culture and stereotypes we are seeking to change really are still prevalent.

Commitment to change However, not all is lost. What we do have as an industry is a good number of organisations and leaders who have made a firm commitment to change. These organisations and leaders are united on this common ground and are coming together to take a more collaborative approach. This is an initiative that has been brought into play by Graeme Fox, the president of the IOR.

What is exciting about this new tactic is that we are working with organisations outside of our sector, such as the Women’s Engineering Society and the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, to expand our knowledge pool. This will move us outside of the silos we are very much used to working in.

We are at the very beginning of this new collaborative approach, and we do not yet have all the answers, but there are a few key areas in which we feel we can work towards improving immediately. One such area is our lack of knowledge and understanding about the value that a diverse workforce can bring to your business or organisation. We need to move away from our market-focus on short-term profits and concentrate more on the long-term benefits that diversity will bring.

There are numerous case studies and papers that reinforce the positive impact a diverse workforce has. When we get it right, diversity will give us a competitive edge; drive innovation; increase collaboration; improve employee experience and their sense of belonging. It also serves to improve customer satisfaction and financial performance, while also increasing corporate reputation and building a strong brand in the eyes of customers and clients.

Next steps

There is no quick fix – creating a diverse and inclusive workforce takes time. However, our first collaborative meeting got me thinking about our short-term and long-term goals when it comes to approaching the topic. What practical steps can we take to challenge and turn around deeply embedded behaviours and attitudes? I have broken some of these requirements down into a few key areas for easy digestion.

In the short-term, here are a few things the industry might want to consider:

  • Leadership: Change will not simply happen by itself, it must be driven. Identify a person or cohort who is passionate about accelerating change. Empower them to take the lead.
  • Audit: What do you really know about your organisation or business? Does your board broadly represent your members or employees? How diverse is your membership and workforce? You will not be able to create a more diverse leadership team if your talent pool is not representative of our population.
  • Identify: Seek out individuals who are different from your current leadership team. Find those who are passionate, those who are keen to progress and help them to develop their leadership skills. We cannot simply continue to draw from the same talent pool, so be sure to look beyond your current executives.
  • Expand: Consider creating new roles to allow diversification without waiting for current terms to conclude. We seek not to exclude anyone, but to bring other experiences and knowledge to the table.
  • Role models: You cannot be what you cannot see. Be certain to spotlight your talented people, celebrate their differences and successes. Support and empower them to be strong visible role models.

There are also a number of longer-term considerations that can have a benefit on building a skilled and diverse workforce. These include:

  • Policy: Be sure to frequently review your DI&E Policy to ensure it is fit for purpose. Disseminate the message throughout your business or organisation and make a firm commitment to embrace its values every day. Documents alone will not change your culture, but they can be used as a tool to cement your long-term commitment to improving DI&E.
  • Succession: Avoid leaving succession planning until the eleventh hour. Seek out your future talent now. Discuss any potential roles and encourage them to consider applying.
  • Help them to work towards preparedness through shadowing and mentoring.
  • Committee: One of the most pivotal steps in the dynamics change at the IOR was the creation of the Women in RACHP group. Help those who are passionate about change to come together and drive it from the ground up.
  • Collaboration: There is no better way to understand those who are not like us than by forming partnerships. Find yourself a ‘wingman’ and share experiences. Look for someone who is the opposite of you or most of your members or employees to better understand where change must be driven.
  • Belonging: Make a long-term commitment to change. The key to transforming and maintaining diversity is creating an environment where its members feel like they belong. Consider creating an employee or member forum, encourage active discussion and listen to the issues they raise. As cooling specialists, we are all our industry; we are wholly representative of our industry as a brand. We cannot simply wait and expect someone else to take ownership of our culture and the image we display outwardly. This is on us!

Changing the status quo will be hard work and will require true leadership, but if we get it right, we will be creating a positive culture within our companies, associations and industry for future generations to thrive in. Let us be the generation that thinks about the world we are leaving our children. Now is the time for change.