Women in Construction – Ruth Devine shares her inspiration, motivation and aspirations for the industry

5 March 2024

Women in Construction Week is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the achievements of women within our industry. They now make up 15.8% of our construction workforce, a higher proportion than at any time since official records began.

Ruth Devine

Ruth Devine is the Managing Director of SJD Associates, a Milton Keynes based electrical contractor undertaking industrial construction projects. She spearheads change within the built environment sector through proactive support and development of apprenticeships and skills training. She is also a Lighthouse Charity Trustee and chairs the Charitable Services Committee. In recognition of her outstanding contribution to championing apprenticeships and skills development, she has just been awarded an MBE in the King’s 2024 New Year Honours list for services to Further Education and Apprenticeships

To celebrate this latest achievement and to support women in construction week we’ve caught up with Ruth to discover a bit more about what inspires her, her motivation to make a difference and her future aspirations.

What inspired your passion to champion apprenticeships in the industry?

I worked for a global chemical manufacturing business upon leaving school, supplying aerospace and defence industries where quality control is paramount. I then joined my dad’s sole trader electrical company in 2006 to help him grow the business. I was amazed at the construction sector’s comparatively ‘relaxed’ approach to quality and training, and frankly concerned about my personal risk and liability. I used apprenticeships to train new electricians and upskill practicing electricians to the recognised industry standard (ECS Gold Card) to ensure reliability and high quality.

This was far from easy but ultimately worked well and was the catalyst for SJD’s continuing growth. I experienced huge frustrations with the apprenticeship system and training delivery, so I joined the skills committee of sector trade association ECA. I was invited to assist the pilot development of employer-designed government apprenticeships way back in 2012, and helped create the Installation and Maintenance Electrician Apprenticeship, the first new apprenticeship standard for the electrotechnical sector which launched in 2015, and one of the most popular standards overall.

I continued voluntarily working with industry employers and stakeholders, government officials and training providers to promote and improve sector apprenticeships. The built environment sector is mostly made up of small businesses so it’s important that their specific needs are listened to and accounted for when designing policy interventions.

I joined IfATE’s Construction and Built Environment Route Panel when it formed in 2017 and I’m still there now. I started working with what was the CLC Skills workstream a couple of years later and I’ve recently been appointed to the Building Safety Regulator’s Industry Competence Committee.

How can we ensure that skills training matches the needs of the workforce?

Employers are best placed to know what skills they need so it’s essential they’re involved in designing occupational standards and training. As one of thousands of small and large businesses in the industry working with IfATE, employers offer valuable insights and guidance that set the standards for apprenticeships and government-approved technical qualifications (in England). This approach improves quality and ensures that programmes match up to businesses’ true skills needs.

What are the benefits for apprentices starting a career in construction?

Apprenticeships, by design develop the knowledge, skills and behaviours an individual needs to achieve occupational competence in the workplace under close supervision. This is applicable to all roles, from professional degree-level occupations to manual trades. Clearly defined occupational standards and robust end point assessment means employers can be confident that an apprentice will contribute to the success of their business.

Apprentices can be confident that the skills they are developing are valued and relevant to the industry, setting themselves up for successful careers. Earning while they learn is an added bonus.

There aren’t many sectors in the economy where you see such a high proportion of business leaders who have progressed from starting their career with an apprenticeship. It’s a great foundation and the sky’s the limit.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for apprentices starting a career in construction?

The first big challenge is finding an apprenticeship. There’s huge demand which is only increasing as the apprenticeship brand becomes better known with students, parents and teachers. Construction trades are now in BBC’s annual top ten list of careers that teenagers aspire to. We need many more apprenticeship places, we’re talking tens of thousands more.

Technical education is finally getting the same respect as academic options, for example, apprenticeships will have UCAS points from September. Industry employers often have informal word-of-mouth recruitment practices, advertising all apprenticeships on the Find an Apprenticeship service is important to level the opportunities for anyone interested, especially women and other diverse groups.

If you could pass on one piece of advice to anyone thinking of starting a career in construction, what would it be?

Make sure you choose valid training routes that are recognised by industry. In my role as Chair of The Electrotechnical Skills Partnership we created the ‘Rogue Trainers’ campaign for would-be electricians, although the principles apply to all trades. There are unscrupulous providers ripping people off with misleading claims about how quickly people can get qualified and earn serious money, if they spend thousands on training that ultimately won’t deliver. People get locked into expensive loans, then find the training material is rubbish, there’s no support and the contract wording means realistically they will never complete in time.

Use reputable industry or government sources of advice to identify career pathways. There’s various government and industry financial support available for many recognised qualifications.

What could change our industry to make the biggest impact?

Can we parachute a million women in to address the shocking gender gap? Women are stubbornly only around 2% of apprenticeship starts for construction and built environment trades. A better balance would benefit everyone, there are encouraging signs but it’s very slow progress.

The Building Safety Act should have a huge impact across the whole industry in the coming years and I welcome the sharp focus on competence.

What lessons have you learned in your career that can inspire others to succeed?

Doing the right thing pays off in the long run, it creates sustainable competitive advantage and a strong company culture. And I found quite quickly in my career that being underestimated is actually very beneficial!

How does your work tie in with being a Lighthouse Charity Trustee?

Much of why I give up my time is to try to contribute to improving the overall culture of the industry. Of personal interest are the charity’s programmes of proactive support for apprentices and students designed to deliver the skills needed to navigate the challenges of daily life and build confidence and resilience. Although even with all the best training, life can take unexpected turns. When it does, I’m proud that the Lighthouse Charity is in the unique position of being able to support every element of emotional, physical, and financial wellbeing for everyone working in the sector.

Finally, congratulations on receiving your MBE honour, you must be incredible proud?

Thank you, it’s such a privilege to have been awarded an MBE and I am so pleased to have been able to support the reform and improvement of apprenticeships and technical education for the industry. If I can share my knowledge and experience to make a difference, then that is very humbling. But this truly is a collective effort and recognition is deserved for thousands of businesses, large and small, who take an active role in creating and shaping opportunities to nurture future generations.

Ruth Devine MBE
  • MBE for services to further education and apprenticeships (2024 New Year Honour list)
  • Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity Trustee and Charitable Services Committee Chair
  • IfATE Apprenticeship Development Partner of the Year Award, National Apprenticeship Awards 2023
  • IfATE Construction & Built Environment Route Panel Member
  • Chair of ECA’s Skills Committee and The Electrotechnical Skills Partnership (TESP)
  • Member of HSE Building Safety Regulator’s Industry Competence Committee
  • Alumni of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Business UK growth programme
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