The UK construction industry continues to be squeezed by a skills shortage that is hampering projects and sending labor costs rising - and the situation looks likely to worsen before it improves.
The sector’s older workers are preparing to retire in their droves. Brexit could damage the supply of EU nationals who currently make up between 8% and 10% of the UK construction workforce (and more like 28% in London). According to figures from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), the sector will need to find 157,000 new recruits by 2021 in order to keep up with demand.
At The Carey Group, a family-owned engineering and construction company based in London, head of recruitment Claire Beattie is determined that all good candidates get a fair hearing, that candidates who might be considered ‘non-traditional’ don’t get overlooked and that the company continues to work on reaching its diversity goals for its 1,550-strong workforce. To achieve all this, she says, it’s vital that bias isn’t allowed to creep into hiring decisions"
Our industry, construction, is typically not that diverse. You’ve got a predominantly male population, especially in technical positions such as site engineers and civil engineers, and the recruitment process at many companies is more geared towards male candidates, from the wording of job ads to the language used in interviews and onboarding. We’re really looking to change that.
There were two aspects of recruitment that Beattie was particular looking to change at Careys, she says. The first was a reliance on traditional CVs and cover letters, which rarely tell the whole story about a candidate and inevitably contain details about them that introduce the risk of bias - from a name indicating their gender or ethnic background to the school or university they attended.
The second was an excessive focus on formal skills and training at the expense of other attributes and talents; in particular, she says, the focus needed be expanded in order to take into account candidate’s behavioural traits, motivations and values.
Fair and unbiased
This thinking led Careys to Applied, a cloud-based recruitment platform based on behavioural science and designed specifically to help companies implement fair and unbiased hiring practices, basically by anonymizing and randomizing online applications so that recruiters can shortlist candidates for interview.
Led by CEO Kate Glazebrook, Applied is the first technology spin-out from the Behavioural Insights Group, a team that was originally set up within the UK’s Cabinet Office but is now a social purpose company in which the Cabinet Office, innovation agency NESTA and its own employees all have a stake. Launched in 2016, Applied received seed funding last year to the tune of £1.5 million and has handled over 70,000 job applications on behalf of over 60 organizations that include hotel group Hilton, publishing company Penguin Random House and, of course, The Carey Group.
At Careys and at other customers, Applied is first used to check the content of job adverts and job descriptions, with its text analytics capabilities highlighting any bias and stereotype threat in the copy. Then, the advert is placed online (on the company’s own ‘Work for Us’ page maybe, a third-party jobsite, or both). Those wanting to apply click on a button and are presented with the application form, but behind the scenes, they have been diverted to the Applied platform.
The Applied system forgoes CVs, instead asking every candidate to complete five questions that relate specifically to the job for which they’re applying. For example, a marketing executive might be asked, ‘You are due to launch a new product. What are the key elements of your go-to-market strategy would you put in place to make sure the launch goes successfully?’
More general questions might include ‘What do you see as the most important challenges facing this organization/industry? How do you assess our current approach to tackling those challenges and what would you do differently?’, or more simply, ‘Tell us about a great idea you had recently and how you got other people on board to execute it.’ In The Carey Group’s case, candidates have 250 words to answer the questions.
What’s key here is that the questions are designed to elicit evidence of particular values, traits, skills, talents and so on that the company needs in the role in question and provide more insight into an individual’s innate behavioural drivers and thought processes than a CV ever could.
Applications are anonymized before being presented to at least three recruiters at a particular employer, with Applied automatically randomizing how they review the responses. This is like shuffling a pack of cards, where each card is an anonymized question response.
For example, answers are assessed and scored on a question-by-question, not applicant-by-applicant basis - in other words, an individual recruiter will see a batch of responses to Question One from different candidates, for example, rather than Candidate A’s responses to all the questions. This is done to minimize the ‘halo effect’ where one exceptionally good or poor response influences how the next is perceived. As Glazebrook explains:
Using this assessment process helps ensure that all candidates are judged on equal merit, with almost no risk of bias creeping into the process. Adding even greater fairness, the hiring team must collaboratively reach a consensus about whether or not to interview a candidate.
Recruiting with confidence
The Carey Group has been using Applied for around 18 months now, starting with graduate positions, but has recently migrated all of its recruitment over to the platform, says Beattie. It’s been a big success she says, especially the behavioural science-led approach:
Applied helps to better inform our selection processes, which brings multiple benefits. Reliance on CV content alone encourages natural human bias. A CV is essentially just a summary of a person’s workplace experiences and educational background, but provides not indication of a candidate’s actual ability to perform in the role. We recruit within a highly technical industry, full of complex engineering challenges. This requires that we recruit people with advanced situational judgement and problem-solving capabilities.
Other benefits include an improved sense among candidates about who The Carey Group is and what it stands for; greater collaboration between Beattie’s recruitment team and hiring managers around the company; the ability to provide unsuccessful applicants with useful feedback on why they didn’t get hired; and greater confidence among internal applicants that their bids for career advancement will be given fair consideration:
From a diversity perspective, there’s lots of debate here and in the construction industry as a whole around positive discrimination; for example, giving preferential treatment to female candidates over male candidates in order to shift the gender imbalance. We don’t want to portray our recruitment practices in that way - we want the best candidates for the job regardless of gender or anything else. But what Applied allows us to do is to open up a wider pool of candidates, and to recruit transparently, so diversity happens by default.