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Diversity and inclusion: The shape of things to come

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How the organisation developing the UK’s new high-speed rail network is changing the industry’s diversity and inclusion practices

Mark Lomas joined HS2 as its head of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in January 2016. After starting out as a musician he became an EDI specialist, overseeing the development of major programmes at the Shaw Trust, the Law Society of England and Wales and the BBC. 

However, when he was first approached to join the £56 billion HS2 programme, Mark turned it down. 

“When HS2 approached me I didn’t want to work in this sector at all,” said Mark, speaking to an audience at Railtex. “In fact, I remember being expressly disinterested the first time an executive recruiter talked to me.

“It was only when I was clear on the scale of opportunity that HS2 presented and how we could afford to do things a little bit differently because of the scale of the programme and the longevity that they talked me into it.”

He added: “It seemed a very backward industry. If I looked up diversity and construction or infrastructure, I’d see nothing. I looked at organisations’ websites – they were inaccessible. I looked at their leadership – they weren’t diverse. Most of their ground floor staff or their most junior staff had a bit of diversity but that disappeared completely as you went up the chain. I didn’t really see any ambassadors for construction or infrastructure that were leading this sort of work. 

“And it seemed, to me, like a sector that was marching towards a rather slow death – not willing to change the way it did things in order to attract new people. I think the investment in infrastructure that has come has meant the industry has a wonderful opportunity over the next 20 years, and let’s not waste it.”

Scale of opportunity

By 2028, 25 per cent of the industry’s workforce is set to retire. When you combine this with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the impact it will also have on the rail workforce – 20 per cent are from non-UK EU countries – it leaves rail with a big problem.

Mark continued: “We have to attract new groups into the industry in order to make the industry sustainable. This is where the issue of doing the same thing for the last 20 years gets us into the problems we are in.”

Mark went on to describe some of the ways HS2 is doing things differently. 

“HS2 is going to build a railway that can be seen from space, and it’s got to be accurate within millimetres. It seems a little silly to say that the best engineers in the UK can’t figure out flexible working. It doesn’t seem like that’s too difficult. Construction sites work on shifts yet we we can’t change the industry to accommodate better flexible practices.

“It is industry standard for contracts to have things like you cannot get paid unless you’re working at the nominated office – regardless of the agile technology we have.”

He explained that HS2 has changed the way it procures consultancy services and the hourly requirements embedded into contracts to enable flexible working. 

Job descriptions

Another key area that HS2’s EDI team has targeted is the language used in job descriptions – a seemingly small area that can have a big impact on the applicants it attracts. Mark had the perfect example to highlight this issue. 

“On my first day at HS2, I looked at why we were having trouble recruiting community engagement people so I said ‘let’s have a look at what we’re asking for’. 

“Number one criteria: must be educated to degree level. In what? Home baking, micro biology, what? It’s so broad it’s meaningless. I thought we wanted people who could talk to the community. 

“The second: must have experience of the transport or infrastructure sectors. Well, if you know anything about the sector, there are only between 13-17 per cent women in the sector, so there went one diverse group. Only six to nine per cent from BAME groups so there went that diverse group. Only two per cent disabled people, so there went that diverse group. And yet, we wanted people to talk to the community and nowhere were we assessing them on the knowledge on that community. 

“Failing at the first hurdle is something that organisations around the sector are very good at.”

He also touched on more obvious obstacles. 

“Does anybody know if they have tested their recruitment website for accessibility?” Mark asked the audience. “If it hasn’t been tested for accessibility, it’s not accessible, and therefore you’re cutting out a whole swathe of people who can’t even get to the starting line.”

Blind auditions

One of the most significant changes to typical recruitment processes has seen CVs removed from applications.

“No research in the world shows that CV based selection is an objective method of selection,” Mark added. “[The Department for Work and Pensions] sent out 3,000 applications for 1,000 jobs in 2009, and, to cut a long story short, if your name was a little different, you have a much lower chance of success. If you had an English name it was one in nine, African or Asian it was one in 16.

“So we have been piloting a type of recruitment called blind auditions. That removes CVs and application forms entirely, and replaces them with an anonymous test, which is what you do in your day job. The line manager has a hand in designing that test, and it is hosted on a platform by a specialist company. 

“When we introduced this form of recruitment, success rates for women in shortlisting jumped 20 per cent, minimum. BAME groups by 20 per cent, minimum. Disabled groups by 15 per cent, minimum. Why? Because it is competency and skill-based selection.”

This is exemplified in HS2’s pool of apprentices, 35 per cent are BAME and 40 per cent women.

“There’s no point inviting diverse groups into the industry to screen them out,” Mark concluded.

Just the beginning

The work to build Britain’s new high-speed network has only just begun and Mark believes HS2 can achieve so much more on the EDI front in the years ahead. 

He said: “Less than two and a half years into the programme, a majority of our tier one contractors have achieved their EDI accreditations. And I firmly believe HS2 will be the first infrastructure programme in the world to have a tier one construction supply chain which is fully EDI accredited. 

“We’re winning awards for the way we’re inventing new methods of practice but this is only the beginning. As the programme expands we will get more innovation through SMEs, more innovation through understanding and monitoring the supply chain performance. 

“At the moment, all HS2 contracts are outperforming industry averages in terms of diversity and inclusion. But this is just the start for us. We have another 17 years in which to help the industry fundamentally change the way it practices diversity and inclusion.”