Improving diversity in the built environment, and how you can help

Two pairs of people talk to each other across a table in adjoining booths
Mentoring is an important tool for in improving diversity in the built environment

Recruiting people from diverse backgrounds is key to understanding inclusion and changing organisational culture. Nicola Mathers explains what we’ve learned about EDI from our Emerging Talent Programme graduates.

The graduation of the first cohort from our Emerging Talent Programme was a proud moment for everyone involved. It also brought home how much more we need to do to improve diversity in the built environment sector.

We launched the programme in 2022 to help people from ethnic minority backgrounds start careers in the sector.

The second cohort is working hard, and we are recruiting cohort three now. So, this is a good time to reflect on what we have learned, and why the programme was needed in the first place.

Find out how to become an ETP host employer here

What is already clear to me is that talent is out there – we just have not done enough as a sector to tap into its potential. Host organisations tell us that joining the programme has helped them to deepen their understanding of ways to embrace equality, diversity and inclusion as employers.

Thanks to Steve Douglas

The Emerging Talent Programme grew from conversations I had with the late Steve Douglas CBE. We felt strongly that the sector should be better at attracting diverse talent to be more representative of Londoners. 

As a sector, we have said for a long time that diversity in the workplace is vital. But still, people of colour are under-represented in the built environment professions, particularly in the private sector.

A diverse group of smartly dressed young people smiling as they pose for a group shot at their graduation
Proud moment: the first cohort graduates

Tackling under-representation in the professions

Last year, six professional bodies agreed on a three-year action plan to tackle the problem. We applaud their commitment to its focus on data-sharing and robust evidence of impact.

As a practice-based organisation, Future of London set out to make a small but tangible difference now. In a way, it has turned out to be a sad but fitting memorial for Steve Douglas.

We place recruits in housing, urban development, planning and regeneration roles. During their work placements, which last up to nine months, recruits helped to develop corporate strategies on sustainability and homelessness; coordinated energy efficiency schemes, and led on planning applications. Some have even contributed to ministerial advice!

In other words, they have seen how change happens up close and want to contribute to creating a thriving city.

Many of our graduates talk about how living in London and other cities has affected the lives of their families, and not always in a good way. Now, they want to make a difference with a passion that stems from that experience.

“Representation matters when you’re working with diverse communities who are able to see somebody that looks like them working in a sector,” says recent graduate Aliya Sheikh.

So, as the programme enters its third year, what have we learned? Here are four takeaways that help to make the business case for organisations supporting the programme.

Untapped talent pool

There is untapped talent that is eager and ready to join the sector now. Host organisations say that one of the benefits of the programme is the opportunity to work with strong candidates from diverse backgrounds, who bring new enthusiasm, energy and insights.

The talent exists, and there needs to be a targeted approach to reach them. Many of our recruits say they were either unaware of the built environment sector or did not know how to get a start.

Nicola Mathers in a smart grey dress gives a presentation with a banner reads Future of London
Nicola Mathers at the first ETP graduation

Understanding diversity makes you a better leader

Line managers in host organisations say they have become more self-aware, allowing them to support recruits’ individual needs. This has deepened their thinking about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in their organisation.

To help them develop their understanding of diversity and inclusion we’re introducing cultural intelligence training for all managers on the programme. This will ensure managers continue to develop their cultural competency and work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.

The benefit of short placements

Host organisations told us that having recruits join from different organisations across the public and private sectors has brought new perspectives to their team, as they take experience from one placement to the next.

Both manager and recruit want to find meaningful projects and then get the project done by the end of the placement, which has created new energy and impact in a short amount of time.

Focusing on culture

Creating inclusive organisations should be an ongoing priority. We think it is essential to embed a culture of constant learning within your organisation. People and cultures are constantly evolving, and organisations should too.

For example, EDI training for staff, reviewing policies and developing and supporting staff from ethnic minority backgrounds must be continuous. Host organisations say the programme helped them embed EDI practice in their organisations.

How you could help

We hope that more organisations will note these lessons and offer placements so the programme can grow. The 15 recruits who started the programme plan to remain in the sector, with some already securing roles with host organisations.

One described the Emerging Talent Programme as a “golden ticket” that led to a permanent job at Arup. Could you offer a golden ticket to another candidate and be part of the change we need in the sector?

Nicola Mathers is Chief Executive of Future of London. Find out more about the Emerging Talent Programme as a potential host employer here.