06/03/2020

Role model Lydia leads the way for women building careers in construction

  • Lydia McGuiness (centre)

Lydia McGuiness wants to be a role model for women working in the construction industry.

In many ways, she already is. The 22-year-old trainee site manager at Henry Boot Construction is working on the huge £180m redevelopment of Barnsley town centre, The Glass Works.

After leaving work, she goes home to study for her Sheffield Hallam University degree in Construction Project Management and, in between that, she organises awards ceremonies and events as the Yorkshire chair of Generation for Change, which aims to give young professionals in the industry a voice.

“I do it all to prove myself,” she says.

It’s that attitude that has contributed to her success.

Lydia is an award winner and an advocate for women working in construction. She’s worked on the multi-million pound refurbishment of Barnsley’s famous market, and now she’s one of the leads on a new Superbowl UK site that will bring bowling, laser quest and seven family restaurants to Barnsley town centre.

But what led Lydia to an industry typically dominated by men?

“I did my GCSEs and then started my A levels – but I just couldn’t carry them on,” she explains. “I actually made myself quite ill because there was so much pressure to do well.

“I spoke to my mum and told her I wasn’t ready to go to university, and that I might never be ready.

“She was really supportive and took me to an apprenticeship fair to see what professions were out there. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in an office, I wanted to do something interesting that included working outside.

“If you’d have asked me as a kid if I wanted to work in construction, I would have said no.

“But once I learned more about it, and realised there were fewer women working in construction, I was interested in it. I wanted to do something different to all of my friends. It drew me to it.”

But not everyone was supportive of Lydia’s career choice – even those closest to her.

“My mum and dad were worried about me working in construction because it can be male dominated. My dad thought I could have chosen a career where it wasn’t as hard to fit in. But that made me more determined.

“I was really close to my form tutor at sixth form. I remember telling her about the apprenticeship I’d found. She said: ‘Don’t do it. You need to go to university.’ She told me about her husband who worked in construction and how he didn’t get home until half seven every night, trying to put me off. But that made me want to do it even more.

“Lots of people said I couldn’t do it. All my friends were asking me why. I just wanted to prove them all wrong.”

The hurdles didn’t end there for Lydia. After being invited for an interview by a reputable construction company, the lack of women working in the industry quickly became apparent.

“Fifty applicants were there – and I was the only woman,” she says.

“I felt as though they all underestimated me. But I went into that situation and ended up dominating the room. I’d never done that before. I was normally quite shy.

“I think it’s because I was so determined. I came away thinking ‘Actually, I’m quite confident when I need to be’, and I ended up being offered the job.”

Lydia clearly stood out from the crowd – but it was Henry Boot Construction who snapped up her service.

“A week before the interview with the other company, I got a call from Henry Boot asking for me to go in for an interview. They were so personal and relatable. I came away and felt, this is the company for me.”

And Lydia hasn’t looked back since.

“Straight away I knew I wanted to go down the management route. I saw the site manager running about, everyone asking for them, getting involved in everything and being so important. I wanted to be that person.

“I’m so proud of the work I’ve done so over the last few years. I loved working on the markets and now working on the Superbowl UK site. I can’t wait to have a game of bowling in there and thinking ‘I know what’s underneath this floor – all the foundations and steelwork’ or walk past and tell people ‘I was part of building that’.”

“All of my friends who are now at uni all say they wish they’d have done something similar to me. “I’ve got a company car, phone and laptop and earn a good salary while studying at uni.

“I even went to a careers fair and bumped into my old form tutor. I told her all about what I was doing and how much I enjoyed it. I hope she was thinking ‘Thank God you didn’t listen to me.’”

But despite her success, Lydia still faces challenges.

“There can be outdated perceptions towards women working in the industry. It’s improving, but there’s more to be done.

“But Henry Boot as a company are really supportive. I’ve never had any issues but if I did, I know they would support me 100 per cent and sort it out.”

Lydia is clearly determined to be successful in an industry where traditionally few women hold high positions. But she wants to break that mould and be a role model for others – while making her parents proud.

“There wasn’t really anyone to look up to,” she says. “But I suppose I hope I can be that person by being an ambassador.

“It’s why I go into schools and talk to young girls and tell them that if you want to go and do something that’s not perceived as a ‘women’s’ job, then you can.

“I’ve got a huge amount of support now. I’m looking at houses this year. I’ve got a good car and I’ve got a good job. So, my parents are so happy. They’re not stressing about me finishing uni and having to find a job to pay off my debt.

“My dad is so proud of me. He’s got my awards on the mantlepiece and he always tells people about the new projects I’m on.”

But what advice would Lydia give to her 18-year-old self, the young woman who was told by her tutor that she couldn’t do it?

“Believe in yourself. You’re more confident than you think you are. If you think you can’t be as good as others, you can be. I’ve never looked back and if that’s what you want to do, then do it.

“Hopefully one day, people will say: ‘Look at Lydia, she’s done it. So can I.’”