RESPONSIBILITY FOR getting more ethnic minorities into civil engineering rests with the ICE, Labour MP Diane Abbott said this week.
The labour backbencher, a long standing campaigner for equal opportunities, told senior ICE figures that attracting more minorities into engineering requires a fundamental culture change, something the Institution itself is best placed to do.
'It's all about changing attitudes and government cannot do that, ' said Abbott. 'For that, you have to start at home, within the Institution.'
Abbott, speaking at a networking meeting for ethnic minorities hosted by the ICE's equal opportunities forum ICEFLOE, stressed that the business case for diversity in engineering is inarguable.
'Diversity has a hard business case. London is a global city and will compete in the 21st century on its skills base. So it makes every bit of sense to draw from the widest selection of people available.
'And who can believe that the only people available are middle aged white people?' Abbott asked. 'Your clients from the UK and overseas expect you to show diversity, or you simply won't look 21st century.'
There is no doubt that ethnic minorities are under-represented in construction. A Construction Industry Training Board report in 1998 put the black and Asian percentage of the construction workforce at 1.9%, against 6.4% of the working population as a whole.
Overturning this disparity will clearly not happen overnight, and Abbott sees a committed liaison with schools as the best way to begin. 'You need to go into schools, but do it with commitment, and to do it in a way that is exciting, ' Abbott said.
ICEFLOE already has a number of schools programmes which reach into areas of high ethnicity, but realises that much more needs to be done.
'The ICE wants to be relevant, respected and effective. The best way to do that is to embrace all who we serve, ' said ICEFLOE tsar, ICE vice-president Michelle McDowell.
Fellow ICE vice president Haro Bedelian - Cyprus born but with Armenian parents - also recognised the scale of the fight ahead in attracting young engineers as well as those from ethnic backgrounds.
'It is very sad that we in the industry have failed to communicate the potential of such a career to the wider public and to youngsters, ' said Bedelian.
'Skills shortages just can't be right for such a profession as ours. So the objective is to spread the word as widely as possible.
'The construction industry is one that rewards hard work, regardless of origin, ' said Bedelian, a former Balfour Beatty group managing director.
'I have met no barriers in my career and have worked with many black and Asian colleagues. There are really no impediments.
'The CITB figures are a measure of the challenge in front of us, ' said Bedelian. 'But we have an excellent opportunity to change them, redressing the skills shortage in the process.
ICEFLOE is one of the ways in which we can do that.'