26 Apr 2023

In my shoes: An interview with Alysha Burrell

We sat down with Alysha Burrell, director of Building Future Leaders, to talk about inspiring the next generation and what we need to do to attract future housing professionals and leaders.

Sometimes we are preaching to the converted about housing! People that work in the social housing sector, understand and engage with its core purpose and are passionate about the difference social housing makes. Do you think the understanding we have of our purpose as a sector translates to young people who are making career choices?

As housing professionals, we know that working in housing plays a fundamental role in our everyday lives and the importance of the sector in society. Despite this lots of people say they ‘fell into housing’ but they love the sector so much that they stay in the sector, they are converted, they appreciate how great the sector is to work in. It is important that we stop relying on people ‘falling’ into housing. We need to promote the positive impact the sector has and the career opportunities available working in a sector with such a strong social purpose.

Young people want to work for companies that make a positive impact, the sector needs to showcase the great opportunities available for people to make their mark and the wide variety of roles available from project managers and engineers to housing officers, to more corporate roles such as finance and human resources to skill trades people from joiners to plumbers and electricians. The variety is huge. There are also new emerging careers where housing is leading the way creating environmental specialist roles and sustainability consultants.

If we want young people to actively choose to work in the sector, we need to change our approach to attraction and retention. You won’t choose a career in a sector you’ve never heard of, or if you only have negative pre-conceived ideas about what the sector is and isn’t. We need to promote our great work more, our social purpose and address some of the negative perceptions of the sector.

Do you think for some young people considering entering or staying in the sector is influenced by the lack of diversity at senior levels in organisations?

The lack of diversity across the sector is an issue, and the lack of diversity at senior levels does have an impact on young people choosing to work in the sector. Having asked young people their views on the sector through running workshops and delivering careers talks to challenge their views, its clear young people want to see greater representation across all levels of the industry. To see a sector where they can have a career with progression and growth.

As the director of Building Future Leaders, we are partnering with companies to run a sector-wide internship programme to encourage more young people into the sector. Our application process involves asking applicants to choose one of five housing questions to answer and write an essay about it. Interestingly quite a few applicants have answered the question: ‘There is a lack of diversity in the housing and construction sector. Explain its impact and how it can be addressed?’

Some of the comments from the young people who applied are:

"To address the lack of diversity in the housing and construction sector, there are several steps that can be taken. One of the most important is to increase representation at all levels of the industry"

"In order to create the most significant impact the industry should drive change from the top of the hierarchy forming an inclusive culture leading to firms being able to promote diversity in recruitment where there’s an opportunity to gain employees with different backgrounds and experiences"

"It has been clear to see that it still needs to be addressed in ways which are productive, like acknowledging how diverse people at the higher levels of the sector"

It’s clear that young people do want to see change at the top of the sector and if you think about the fact that young people are the next generation of future leaders it’s important to acknowledge their views and take them into account.

How does the lack of diversity impact you?

The lack of diversity across the sector makes it harder to explain to younger people who comment on the lack of diversity as a reason why they wouldn’t join the sector. I resort to comments such as:

‘Well, the social housing sector is more diverse than other sectors’

‘Well, recently one of the largest housebuilders appointed the first women chief executive of any major housebuilder, which is great progress’

‘Well, there is still a long way to go, but by joining the housing sector you can make your mark and change the sector for the better’

We know that hiring in your own image, stifles innovation and creativity and as a board member I’ve seen the benefits of having diversity represented at the top of an organisation in a boardroom, you pick up on things others do not. Is that not the value of diversity, each person brings their own unique background, perspective and diversity of thought?

What do you think would help change this?

Having visibility of diverse and relatable senior role models is essential to create inspirational and inviting cultures where young people are able to see themselves represented and demonstrate there aren’t barriers to their career progression. Lara’s In my shoes campaign is a wonderful example raising awareness and using a diverse mix of positive role models to inspire change.

We know that the social housing sector has greater diversity of Black, Asian and ethnic minority people at junior levels, with numbers and representation decreasing in senior leadership positions. I think it is important Black, Asian and ethnic minority people who are in senior leadership positions and doing excellent work across the sector are given a platform to become much needed role models, and their achievements acknowledged. A platform for young people should also be provided to tap into these networks so they can be inspired and see themselves represented.

Additionally, there are large number of CEO’s who have been retiring across the sector, which presents great opportunity for organisations to diversity senior leadership teams by ensuring fair and inclusive recruitment processes.

In my shoes article

This article is part of a series for Lara Oyedele’s 2023/23 CIH presidential campaign advocating the importance of racial diversity in the housing sector.

A key campaign objective is to amplify conversations and awareness by sharing a wide variety of lived experiences and voices, #inmyshoes, to create a momentum where racial and ethnic diversity are consistently on the agenda to drive forward positive change.