It wasn’t until joining Gleeds that Nirali Patel discovered the vast amount of roles construction offered. She would have never guessed the ways in which her time in HR, law, and telecoms had produced transferrable skills for her current role as project manager.
After all, how could she? No one told her.
Broadening horizons for the next generation
Recognising this, Nirali has made it a pet project to educate children on looking past the labour elements of construction, beyond engineering and bricklaying. A startling realisation during recent school visits made this more evident.
“We played a game during one of my visits where the kids would form groups according to their interests,” Nirali said. “The girls would without hesitation form a group around design, while the boys rallied around the more engineer-y areas. It hadn’t even occurred to the girls that they had other options, and it was only after I educated them about the role of project and design managers that they began showing a shifting realisation that construction wasn’t restricted to just boys.”
Broadening the horizons for students about the diversity of construction roles out there is high on Nirali’s agenda. Her own story is a snapshot of what a construction career can look like, and how the skills needed for it can come from the unlikeliest of places.
Joining construction from...law? Telecoms? HR???
She didn’t even start out in construction, funnily enough. She started in law, which lacked the practical experience she sought. Later she worked for a telecom, but when the job market there slowed, she landed an admin assistant role at Gleeds. It was supposed to be a steppingstone for her to jump back into the telecom market.
It turned out quite differently.
In just a couple of years, she has risen to Assistant Project Manager. Today she manages construction of the Midland Metropolitan University Hospital in Birmingham, a 650-bed £300m general hospital that will feature one of the largest emergency units in Europe.
It’s a big responsibility, between the 725 project management instructions, 525 early warnings, and 300+ compensation events she’s overseen thus far. Now imagine doing this while pursuing a Master’s degree in project management and a chartership with the Association for Project Management, and at the same time, visiting schools to raise awareness of construction careers.
And then try to raise a family.
“She isn’t fazed by any issues and always approaches challenges positively, which is a joy to see,” said Louise Ellis,” Chief People Officer at Gleeds. “To be happy and affable is a real skill when you’re under pressure and the stakes are high.”
Strengthening students' employability in construction
If anything, Nirali revels in the challenge. The excitement she feels is a big driving force for why she’s been visiting primary schools and universities like Birmingham City University to raise awareness among youth about opportunities in construction.
It’s not just talk either but site visits that give students context for the impact a future role in construction could have.
“To strengthen the link between Birmingham City and the industry and enhance our students' learning experience and employability, she took the initiative to organise virtual site visits and online seminars for our undergraduates and postgraduates so she and her colleagues could share their project experience on some very topical subjects such as how to manage health and safety on site under Covid-19,” said Nirali’s lecturer, Dr. Hong Xiao, programme leader of MSc Construction Project Management at BCU.
Beyond schools, parents have an important role, too, to play in raising awareness. It’s why she’s very transparent with her two kids about the work she undertakes as a PM (she’s even driven them past the very sites she has supported).
“Is it surprising kids don’t know what a quantity surveyor does, let alone a project manager?” Nirali asked. “Even fashion managers have transferrable skills for design in construction, but people don’t know that. If neither parents nor schools are educating kids on this, how will they ever know?”
Influencing more inclusive policies in construction for the next generation
If the next generation is going to connect with construction, the industry must also reflect the world they live in.
As a member of Gleeds’ Diversity & Inclusion Steering Group, Nirali has played a key role in driving forward initiatives and recommendations to policy changes that are helping to make Gleeds as welcoming as possible to people of all backgrounds.
One of those initiatives has included the drafting of a tone of voice guidance document in collaboration with the comms team, intended to review the definitions of appropriate and inclusive language within the business.
“The idea isn’t so much to tailor the language to any particular group, but to make sure everyone feels like they’re part of the family and that everyone is being addressed as equals,” Nirali said.
Notably, she has engaged closely with colleagues on the use of pronouns for transgender people and those who don’t identify as cis-gender.
She has also been an active voice with Women in Construction, commenting on changes that must be made to better accommodate women in the industry, including looking towards examples set by law firms and telecoms for creating pathways allowing women to skill up. She has even collaborated with BAME and is currently in talks with the group to explore options for introducing a new chapter in Birmingham, building on their established prominence in London.
By visiting children, undergraduates, and postgraduates across schools of all levels, Nirali has championed an all-inclusive construction industry that actively encourages women to explore a plethora of career paths that break gender norms. Through this knowledge-sharing, she has meaningfully added to young women’s learning experience and enhanced their employability by creating links between the industry and schools.