Wates aims to spend £20m with social enterprises

Wates construction firm is addressing a talent shortage in the sector by buying through social enterprises, its head of sustainability has said.

Rachel Wolliscroft, head of sustainability at Wates, said providing employment and training opportunities for groups struggling to find work was a core part of the firm’s sustainability plan, and that “one of the ways we deliver that is through the engagement we have with the social enterprise sector”.

“We do as an industry, as you’ve heard, have a huge challenge about attracting young people in the sector, but also about retention. So we need to not just think about who it is we bring in, but enable everybody to flourish and stay within the sector in the long term,” she said.

Since Wates began its commitment in 2010 to social enterprises – businesses that have a social or environmental mission as part of their business model – the firm has spent more than £8.7m with them, Wolliscroft said. Speaking at the Social Value Summit in London on Wednesday, she said last year Wates spent £2.1m in the social sector, and aims to spend a total of £20m with social enterprises by 2020.

Wates has calculated that for every £1 spent with social enterprises, there is a £1.77 return to society, “and that’s mainly because of the employment and training opportunities that are delivered to those furthest removed from the labour market,” said Wolliscroft.

However, about 60% of the social businesses Wates works with provide services, including venue hire and printing, and Wolliscroft said there were capacity challenges on the construction side. “What we’re looking for is more trade organisations that can work on our projects, whether that’s trades through bricklaying, whether it’s about void clearance in housing association work we’re doing. Whatever it is, it’s about how do we encourage and stimulate growth within the trade subcontractor area?”

Wates, a family-owned firm, puts emphasis on its “ambassador-ship within the sector”, said Wolliscroft. As well as channelling its own spend into social enterprises, it is also working to encourage its customers to spend socially. It does this by organising visits between its customers and its suppliers. “There is nothing more valuable than seeing is believing, actually seeing social enterprise in action, understanding the scale of what they can deliver,” said Wolliscroft.

“Many of our customers have not traded directly with those social enterprises, so it’s about how we influence that spend and really deliver greater value into the community.”

Wolliscroft said an important part of engaging with social enterprises was embedding the approach through its partnerships with the public and private sector. The firm has worked with the NGO Social Enterprise UK to develop its brokerage system to help other firms find suppliers in the social sector.

“[It] isn’t just about us trading with the sector, it’s about how do we influence, how do we lobby, how do we work with our customers to trade more with that sector? How do we engage and build our social enterprise brokerage? So building that subcontractor market for us is really important,” said Wolliscroft. 

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