MD shares her inspiration, motivation and aspirations for the construction industry  

By Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity

Women in Construction Week runs from 3rd to 9th March and provides an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishments of women in the industry. Currently, women make up 15.8% of the construction workforce, which is the highest proportion since official records began.

Ruth Devine

Ruth Devine is the Managing Director of SJD Associates, an electrical contractor located in Milton Keynes that undertakes industrial construction projects. She is committed to driving change in the built environment sector by actively supporting and developing apprenticeships and skills training. Ruth also serves as a Lighthouse Charity Trustee and leads the Charitable Services Committee. In recognition of her remarkable contributions to promoting apprenticeships and skills development, she was awarded an MBE in the King’s 2024 New Year Honours list for services to Further Education and Apprenticeships.

To support Women in Construction Week, we caught up with Ruth to learn more about what motivates her, her drive to make a difference, and her future aspirations.

What inspired your passion to champion apprenticeships in the industry?
Upon leaving school, I worked for a global chemical manufacturing business, 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 risk and liability. I used apprenticeships to train new electricians and upskill practising 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 catalysed 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 in 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 mainly 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 was formed in 2017, and I’m still there now. A couple of years later, I started working with what was the CLC Skills workstream, 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 they must be 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 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 applies to all roles, from professional degree-level occupations to manual trades. Clearly defined occupational standards and robust end-point assessment mean 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 such a high proportion of business leaders have progressed from starting their careers with apprenticeships. It’s a great foundation, and the sky’s the limit.

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 the 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 it in time.

Use reputable industry or government sources of advice to identify career pathways. There are 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? Stubbornly, women account for 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 significantly impact the industry in the coming years, and I welcome its 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 a sustainable competitive advantage and a strong company culture. And I found pretty quickly in my career that being underestimated is very beneficial! 

Finally, how does your work align with being a Lighthouse Charity Trustee?
Much of why I give up my time is to try to improve the industry’s overall culture. Of personal interest are the charity’s proactive support programmes for apprentices and students designed to deliver the skills needed to navigate the challenges of daily life and build confidence and resilience. However, life can take unexpected turns even with all the best training. When it does, I’m proud that the Lighthouse Charity is uniquely positioned to support every emotional, physical, and financial well-being element for everyone working in the sector.

If you or anyone you know is struggling, reach out for free and confidential support now. 24/7 Construction Industry Helplines;  0345 605 1956, (UK)  1800 939 122 (ROI)

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