Females embrace brick industry

Clay Technology magazine
26 Sep 2019

Government targets and recruiters desperate for people with the right skills are helping women be embraced in the brick making industry. 

The UK government is aiming to build 300,000 new homes every year by the mid-2020s. But data released by the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government shows the region’s build rate is currently off the pace. Among the reasons cited is the lack of a suitably trained and qualified workforce. EngineeringUK and government data show there is a gender disparity between males and females not only taking on STEM-based subjects in education, but also roles directly working with or handling materials in the construction industry, including bricks. To combat this, industry is working on specialist programmes to train people with the technical skill sets, and implement policies and behaviours to help encourage women to apply for and be supported in construction roles  commonly held by men.

The numbers

According to EngineeringUK, engineering generated 21.4% – £1.2 trillion – of the UK’s £5.7 trillion turnover in 2018. Of the 721,940 engineering enterprises in 2018, construction was the second largest industry at 27.3%, behind information and communication at 29.4%, and ahead of manufacturing at 18.6%.

Data from the Ministry of Housing, Community and Local Government showed that the annual start of new house buildings totalled 162,270 in the 12 months up to March 2019, a 1% increase compared with the previous year. During the same period, completions totalled 169,770, an increase of 6% compared with last year. However, newbuild dwelling starts in England were estimated at 36,630 in the quarter to March 2019, a 9% decrease compared with the previous three months, and a 9% decrease on the same period a year earlier. Also, completions were estimated at 42,870, a 1% decrease from the previous quarter.

Construction consulting and design agency McBains Managing Director, Clive Docwra, said continued uncertainty around Brexit was leading investors to be wary of committing to new projects. He said skill shortages would also be an issue, unless the industry could recruit skilled workers from overseas.

Ibstock Head of Marketing – Clay Division, Oliver Lockwood, said there had been sustained growth over the last decade in the brick industry. ‘A key driver of this growth is the private housing sector, with the government committed to building hundreds of thousands of homes each year and first time buyer demand being enhanced with schemes like Help to Buy. The UK’s ever-growing but ageing housing stock also means there’s strength in the renovation, maintenance and improvement sector too,’ he told Clay Technology. ‘The result of this has seen the UK manufacture the highest number of bricks in over a decade. In 2018, two billion bricks were produced by UK manufacturers and in 2019, the industry will be on course to manufacture 2.6 billion bricks as confidence continues to grow.’

In terms of starting a pathway into the construction industry, it seems there is still a gender gap. For example, in 2019 EngineeringUK said for engineering-based subjects at GCSE and A Level, only 10% of enrollments were by female students. In the construction workforce, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) data for the April-June 2018 quarter, the most current data available, shows that 853,320 people worked in construction and building trades, including 96,151 as bricklayers and brick masons, and 39,435 as roofers, roof tilers and slaters.

On top of this, about 6,500 people were employed as quarry workers and related operatives. But when divided by gender, there were only records for people in brick-based jobs and roofing, as the numbers for women were ‘too small for a reliable estimate’.

In the ONS document, Employee jobs by industry, as of March 2019, in the category Manufacture of other non-metallic mineral products  – the closest category to brickmaking – the total amount of females in the workforce was 15, while for men the figure was 65.


Perceived industry inhibitors

Both industry and networking groups have cited a number of factors that have discouraged women from working in construction. A Wienerberger spokesperson said barriers to recruiting and retaining women include society’s occupational stereotypes, long shifts in manufacturing roles, and generally a lack of visible role models.

A member of the IOM3 Women in Materials group suggested that increasing the number of women in higher management roles might help the situation. By tackling it top down with more women in skilled positions, other women would perhaps see them as role models and want to join the profession and aspire to higher management roles. Part of the hurdle at lower levels may be a reluctance to enter a career seen as male-dominated, where some women feel they do not have a voice, particularly if in a supervisory position.


Employers and networking groups are helping make young girls aware of roles in the construction industry and encourage them to see it as a rewarding and safe place to work. For example, The Institute has a school programme designed to complement the STEM curriculum taught in primary and secondary schools. IOM3 Knowledge Exchange Manager, Diane Aston, said the Institute’s materials education activities in schools provide direct support to the five–19 science and design technology curriculum. ‘The lessons are designed to add context to the curriculum content by showcasing materials, processes and artefacts that are familiar to learners. All of our materials talks include a section on ceramics and feature an overview of the science and processes involved in manufacturing products from clay,’ she said.

Wienerberger has marketing practices to help inspire women to apply for roles within the company. For example, its Meet Our People recruitment campaign featured numerous female employees. And for International Women’s Day, the company focused on STEM roles in 2018 and development opportunities for female employees in 2019.

A Wienerberger spokesperson said jobs are advertised on #Yesshecan, a job board that specifically targets women, and job advertisements are reviewed to ensure the language is accessible and gender neutral. ‘Language such as “energetic” and “dynamic” does not support diversity and is ambiguous,’ they said.

‘We have also excluded desirable skills on job adverts and only include essential skills and experience. This is because women are less likely to apply if they feel they don’t possess all the requirements, and so only listing the essentials aims to make the job more accessible.’

International Clay Technology Association (ICTa) Chairman, Andrew Carp, suggested that anyone wanting information should network, such as becoming an IOM3 student member and selecting ICTa to find out about the roles available. Also, he strongly recommended attending the ClayTech exhibition and conference in November 2019 to meet people in the industry.

Getting the right accreditation

An issue employers face with selecting candidates for brick-based roles is securing appropriate training for them, as it currently is an industry-led initiative.

ICTa prepared course material, delivered by IOM3, among others, to boost the skills of people working in the heavy clay sector. Carp said, ‘These courses were developed in response to the loss of previously respected qualifications offered through the now defunct Institute of Ceramics. Recessions resulted in skills being lost through redundancies, a generation lost who would have passed their skills onto the next generation. Now there is a sudden demand for skills from new entrants to the industry needing to learn.’

ICTa Chair Education and Training Committee, Paula Wardle, said, ‘We needed to make sure people entering the industry understood about the raw materials we were using, the equipment and the process we use, and why we use it. They need to understand what quality problems there might be in a raw material, or in that process, and how to fix them, plus about the health and safety aspects around the process and raw materials, and know what to put in place for that.’ 

She added that structured, on-the-job training with courses was often provided and sponsored by the employer. ‘If you are new coming into the industry, we would look for maths, English and science qualifications – A Levels. The brickmaking industry is so small that such knowledge cannot come from elsewhere. We will teach you how to make a brick.’

The Level 2 Certificate in Clay Technology is aimed at employees who are new to the industry and require a basic understanding of heavy clay production. The course offers basic technical knowledge from quarry to lorry of the processes involved in making bricks, pavers, tiles and pipes. It leads on to the more technical Level 3 course, which is aimed at people in a team leader role or work across production, technical and engineering, and who aspire to progress within a technical management role. For the 2018–2019 cohort, there were 11 males and two females enrolled in the Level 2 course, and 17 males and no females in the Level 3. A number of Level 5 and 6 programmes are also available, provided by University of Derby and Staffordshire University. Some employers offer accreditation courses or sponsor employees to get skilled. At Wienerberger, apprenticeships range from Level 3 to 7 in manufacturing and office roles – referred to as craft and work based. Ibstock has apprenticeships in engineering and technical.

What can employers do to support women?

People working in the field have identified a number of measures to assist the industry to adopt policies and implement strategies to help them make women feel more comfortable in the workplace.

In a blog for InnovateUK, Pinkspiration Founder, Lisa Marie Brown, said there were a number of actions the construction industry could take to encourage more gender diversity, including offering cleaner work spaces, toilet facilities on site for males and females, higher paid part-time roles and flexible working including job shares for both men and women, training specific for women and girls, and construction site open days for women and girls to work on-site for the day.

Wienerberger has a flexible working policy, aimed at both men and women. This has been successful in creating a job share in a management role, held by two part-time females. There are also a range of apprenticeships available to existing employees to encourage career development regardless of factors such as gender, age and ethnicity.

‘Wienerberger has some positive examples of a progressive agenda, including females who have developed within the company, moving into senior positions, have successfully moved to other departments, the promotion of a colleague upon return from maternity leave, and creating a job-share for a management level role,’ a spokesperson said.

IOM3 Membership Development Manager, Sarah Boad FIMMM, said the Institute’s Women in Materials group holds seminars where they showcase careers and experiences.

Life in the field

Wienerberger Continuous Improvement Engineer, Laura Emms, graduated from Loughborough University in 2012 with a first class honours in innovative manufacturing engineering. After working as a graduate engineer with Jaguar Land Rover for two years, she was promoted to engineer. She then moved to Siemens Wind Power as a process and industrial engineer for two years, before joining Wienerberger at the end of 2017.

Emms said working in the construction material manufacturing sector offers many opportunities for career variety and progression. ‘I understand why some women may feel hesitant to join a male-dominated industry such as engineering, however I have never experienced any prejudice working with Wienerberger, and I encourage other women to consider a career in the industry. If you showcase your skill set and you work hard, you will be viewed positively as a professional in the industry, regardless of gender.’