Nicola Jones didn’t really plan to work in construction. But 25 years on, she’s made a huge impact in the industry. She’s about to take on another challenge as National Chair of Women in Property.
The Senior Project Manager at Gleeds isn’t afraid of a challenge. Despite living with a long-term medical condition, she put herself on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic when she ran a project to complete a much-needed new high consequence infectious diseases (HCID) unit at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff. She now wants to use her experience and knowledge to make the world of construction warm and welcoming for women.
Nicola came from an engineering family but got her first job in construction when she was made redundant from a manufacturing plant in the 1980s.
“I would say the construction industry chose me to be honest,” says Nicola. “My father was an electrician within the manufacturing industry and I had an interest in electrical design in my late teens, but, when I fell into construction through redundancy, it turned out to be a lucky break.”
“I was fortunate enough to work with some brilliant people who showed me the ropes and always encouraged me to aim for more. I was taught new skills, learned about project management and then I eventually joined Gleeds over a decade ago. Again, I was lucky enough to have some brilliant mentors who encouraged me to develop and improve. I can honestly say that, for me, being female in the world of construction has never been a barrier.”
Nicola worked as a regional health and safety manager and an assistant site manager with two different companies when she applied to join Gleeds as a technical administrator – a role the management team felt she was over-qualified for.
Turns out they were right: within a few months, she became an assistant project manager, later a Senior Project Manager leading on some of Gleeds’ most prestigious projects, including the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital, the HCID Infectious Diseases Unit at the University Hospital of Wales as well as the Spinal and Neuro Rehabilitation hospital, and the All Wales Cystic Fibrosis Unit at Llandough.
“I’m so lucky because I’ve always enjoyed my job and I’ve never experienced any bias because I’m a woman. I learned the ropes from incredible people, and it’s been a joy to spend my working life within construction.
“The construction sector is such a great industry to work in, yet many women still don’t really consider it an option. They may see it as a place where you work on-site with your high-vis jacket and hard hat on, but it is so much more than that. The scale of the jobs and opportunities you can gain is amazing and my aim is to see more and more women joining me in the industry, creating more diversity in the sector and making a difference to our built environments.” Nicola Jones, Senior Project Manager at Gleeds
When it comes to making a difference, Nicola, a former gymnast and athlete, has certainly done that. Despite suffering from Crohn’s Disease, a long-term condition where the gut becomes inflamed, she put herself at the heart of the pandemic when the NHS was bursting at the seams.
“My biggest achievement to date was working on the high consequence infectious diseases (HCID) unit at the University Hospital of Wales at the start of the Coronavirus outbreak in March 2020. I was given three months to design and construct a ten-bed modular ward on stilts – the first of its kind in Wales. Once completed, I then moved onto the COVID-19 wards across many of their sites for the same University Health Board.
“The team had to work against the clock in some really challenging times but there was absolutely no question that we would do it. Working on a live hospital site is not usual for me but working through a pandemic was certainly eye-opening and extremely emotional. During that first lockdown, Covid was a complete unknown.
“There was a very emotional response from the team. We had to do a quick rush internally to make all procedures safe at a time when two-metre distancing had become law in Wales. There were things to consider like keeping the employers, contractors, staff and visitors at the health boards safe. Many companies wouldn’t work because of the processes, and many wouldn’t worried at the thought of being sued. Supply companies were closing and staff were going on furlough and it was extremely challenging.
“I did a lot more procurement than I usually do because I was ringing around contractors on other key sites, and I had to ensure we didn’t run out of key supplies. We ran low on plaster, and you can’t believe how hard it was to get paint. But our contracting teams rallied around, and people did whatever they could to help us get supplies. Collaboration is another thing to have come out of this, I think. Everyone clubbed together to help the NHS.”
Nicola is extremely proud of the team.
“It was hard, really hard. I am a mum and gran myself and have my own health issues, but I was determined to keep working at the hospital throughout lockdown. It’s hard to look back and remember how sick people were but I actually spent a lot of time in hospital growing up and wanted to give something back. At the height of COVID-19 I saw how tough it was. I won’t pretend it didn’t make me an emotional wreck at times.”
Nicola says there are many routes into a construction career, making it an attractive option for both men and women. Her daughter is just kicking off her own construction career as a graduate and Nicola says there are many paths to follow.
You don’t have to come into the industry with a degree in project management, for example. My daughter saw how much I love my job and I hope she enjoys it just as much. What is great about construction is you don’t have to specialise in anything. You can be working at a prison one week and a hospital or government building the next. You learn how to build buildings – and what career could be better than that? It’s a career where you get out what you put in. I have a small grandson who loves building toys and playing with Lego and it’s lovely to hear him say he is building things like me. That’s lovely to hear.
As Chair of Women of Property, Nicola also wants to open conversations around inclusion, disability and the menopause.
Government figures show around 95,000 females working in the construction sector (aged between 50-64), and Nicola says employees must be supported at the workplace.
She says: “I’m a firm believer in inclusion and think it’s also important to address issues around hidden disabilities like ADHD and mental health. There also needs to be a bigger discussion around menopause and the challenges women face as they reach a certain age. I am starting to experience it now myself and it can be hugely frustrating.
“I’ve always laughed that I have a superpower in that I can remember people’s names. But when I was a meeting recently, I couldn’t even remember how to get back to the office when I offered my manager a lift. It’s truly shocking. Women are working later and longer and so it’s really important to put issues like menopause at the forefront of conversations.”
I’m a firm believer in inclusion and think it’s also important to address issues around hidden disabilities like ADHD and mental health. There also needs to be a bigger discussion around menopause and the challenges women face as they reach a certain age. I am starting to experience it now myself and it can be hugely frustrating. Nicola Jones, Senior Project Manager at Gleeds