I am what some people would call a lifer. I have worked for the same business, albeit one that has gone through a lot of change and growth, throughout my 34-year career in real estate. This has given me a unique vantage point to observe the changing landscape of commercial real estate and I have seen a lot of people come, go and quite regularly return. I built my career through the industry boom, bust and boom on the distressed side of the market.
In this time, I am pleased to say that commercial property has made some significant changes in how it operates. Notoriously slow to adapt to change, the words ‘dinosaur’ and ‘pale, male and stale’ were aptly used to describe the sector – but, thankfully, we are seeing progress. Yet, there is still so much more we can do to introduce diversity.
If you think about the reputation that commercial property has enjoyed for many years, perhaps as a result of enjoying itself rather too much at times, then the scale of the challenge that we have in front of us is clear: how can we make the sector more diverse, more inclusive, more robust to the changing macro-economic environment and better adapted to the fast-paced and changing world that we now find ourselves in. The times they are a’changin’ and not a moment too soon.
The aim is clear: attract more diverse talent into the industry. However, the reality of how this is achieved is rather less clear, or, at the very least, rather less direct. Big sweeping changes are certainly headline grabbing, but are they effective in achieving long-term change? Perhaps not. At Avison Young, we realised that we needed a multi-pronged approach to combat the perception of the sector; raise awareness of a career in real estate, beyond the traditional means of entry; pivot our hiring process, so it can recognise talent beyond standardised academic success; and commit to being a voice among many, if we are to change both our business and the whole sector for the better.
Tackling barriers to entry for our own business was reasonably straight forward – we removed the academic requirement for our graduate programme. Whilst we do look at academic performance, we look at the strength of an application as a whole, rather than just the individual parts. That is not to say that academic performance does not tell us important things about a person, but it cannot tell us everything. Further, we accept applications from graduates of any age and from a non-property related background, giving them the chance to undertake a RICS or RTPI Masters conversion course while working with us. We are far more interested in someone’s interest in property and their intentions for the future, rather than inspecting the path they used to come to us – particularly when that path may be well-trodden, without the fresh ideas and diversity our sector needs.
We also wanted to have an impact on the wider business and property communities, as well as investing heavily in training and developing our own staff. To that end, we are proud to have partnered with the London Progression Collaboration on its Reskilling the Recovery initiative, designed to boost the number of apprenticeships available to Londoners. We pledge a proportion of our unspent apprenticeship levy to London’s SMEs, supporting their recovery from the Covid-19 crisis by paying for apprenticeship training for new or existing staff.
This kind of initiative is so important. Even before the pandemic, the Open University reported that two thirds of employers struggled to find workers with the right skills. Further, it opens doors into the industry for those who might not otherwise be able to access it, ensuring our future workforce is much more varied and diverse. I firmly believe that apprenticeships are key to building a resilient, inclusive economy in a post-Covid landscape. Past experience shows that there is likely to be higher demand for apprenticeships as we recover from the crisis; using a proportion of our apprenticeship levy to benefit SMEs is a powerful way to support our supply chains and help solve cross-sector skills challenges.
But more needs to be done here. We need more businesses to take up the mantle alongside us when it comes to entry requirements and apprenticeships. However, we also need more action from the government, particularly when it comes to the apprenticeship levy. In May 2020, it transpired that more than £1 billion of funds from the apprenticeship levy had gone unspent in the previous year. This is because the limitations imposed by the levy make it enormously difficult for businesses to use funds effectively and in a way that would lead to long-term change. If we are to tackle the social mobility challenges that are part of numerous industries then businesses need to have the financial drivers to bring young people in, train them and employ them. Removing the restrictions on how funds are spent from even just the educational side of the employee-employer relationship would allow us to be far more proactive in how we address this challenge. In this way, we could truly move the dial in how diverse talent enters the workforce.