Janet Shelley is an entrepreneur who happily admits that she has always wanted to “do things that people think impossible.” Taking on the male-dominated building industry with a female-dominated construction firm appears, at first glance, to fall into that category.
After all, what do you think of when someone says the word ‘builder’ at you? Endless cups of tea? Lots of noise and dust? Wolf whistling, bare-chested men on scaffolding? None of these mental images involve women – after all, women aren’t interested in getting into the building industry, right?
Wrong, according to Janet, who set up Women Builders in 2003 – a company that now employs the UK’s largest female construction workforce, with employee and trainee places much sought-after by women.
“In my experience, I have not had any problems with filling vacancies for women builders,” she explains. “There is definitely more women who want to move into the industry than jobs allow.”
Janet admits that there were several obstacles to getting her business up and running, with negative attitudes exacerbating more practical problems such as the lack of boots and gloves that fit women. The firm also has to work hard to find training courses for staff aged over 25.
“Being a company which employs predominately women in a very male dominated industry is a challenge in itself,” she says. “I have heard quite a few negative comments from parents of girls and women who want to move into the industry.
“I also think that due to stereotyping most women do not enter the industry straight from school, they tend to decide to take it up in their twenties to thirties.
“Having been along to a lot of construction seminars is quite apparent that our company is unique and people – mostly men – who have been in the industry for a long time cannot seem to grasp the concept that things can be done differently.
“It does spur me on and my thought is that construction is in the mess it is in because there are not enough women in the industry.”
Janet worked in IT for15 years, before deciding to make a radical career change and retrain as a plasterer. After struggling to find any suitable courses, she started Women Builders and was immediately contacted by 26 women who wanted to make similar career switches.
The startup costs were met by investment from the European Social Fund through the Learning & Skills Council. A further award should enable Janet to expand the business from its Milton Keynes base to High Wycombe.
Despite having grown staff numbers from two to 16 in the last eight months and drawn up plans to spread the business across the UK, Janet admits that the process has, at times, been difficult.
“I do not necessarily think the UK is entrepreneur-friendly,” she says. “My experience is that when you ask for assistance on something that is slightly out of the ordinary, people tend to shy away. They are more than happy to use your idea as ‘ground breaking’ once you have it up and running, but are not necessarily there to help when you need it most.”
Janet is a firm advocate of positive thinking, stressing that entrepreneurs should always aim high and pursue opportunities boldly.
“I have always watched footballers and snooker players on the TV and always thought how wonderful it must be to get paid to do something that you really enjoy doing.
“Running a business is never easy, but it does help if you are doing something you enjoy.”