Megan Ross is an assistant superintendent for a large Maryland-based general contractor. Ross, a former architecture major, had realized she’d rather build structures than design them, and is now on construction sites every day, coordinating subcontractors and monitoring the progress of jobs.
At her first position out of college, she earned a salary of over $50,000; two years later she says, “I have friends in architecture who are making half of that.” The work is a joy, she says. “It’s one of the best careers you can have.”
Ross is part of an overlooked group that, with some assistance, could easily solve the construction industry’s labor shortage: women. Currently, women make up less than 3 percent of the construction workforce, which includes the building trades—hands-on jobs like carpentry, bricklaying, and electrical work—as well as management. If twice as many women worked in the field, the industry’s labor shortage would, according to data available from the U.S. Department of Labor, practically be wiped out.
And finding a solution to the ongoing worker shortage is crucial. Due to immigration crackdowns, economic after-effects of the late-aughts recession, and a lack of interest on the part of millennials, the field is down by 275,000 workers. That’s affecting housing costs, at a time when the country is already suffering from rising housing prices. Soon, even more workers will be needed: National Association of Homebuilders economist Stephen Melman predicts growth of 4-5 percent in housing starts next year, and an increase in construction-labor positions to the tune of 12 percent between 2016 and 2026.
With gender disparities narrowing in industries across the board, figuring out how to get more women into construction seems like a no-brainer. But there are a number of hurdles that first have to be overcome.
“There’s a perception that it’s not an industry friendly to women,” explains Katrina Kersch, chief operating officer of the National Center for Construction Education and Research. Kersch says that is due to things like the scarcity of images depicting women at work in the industry and stereotypes of male construction workers as unwelcoming to women.
And then there’s the issue of getting into the field. “If I’m a woman out there, maybe a single mother, where do I go? How do I start?” Kersch asks rhetorically. “That’s a very difficult question to answer. There’s not a clear path to get in.” Instead, there are a number of possibilities: vocational classes at high schools or community colleges, apprenticeship programs through unions, or jobs directly with contractors. But all of those routes are overwhelmingly targeted to men, and few are obvious to someone unfamiliar with the industry.
Indeed, many of the women currently in the field, especially those in trades, fell into it by accident. Monica Gauthier, a pile driver near Portland, Oregon, had been unsuccessfully looking for work back in 2005 when someone told her about an upcoming job fair for women who might want to enter the field. She dropped by—“I went on my own; I didn’t know anyone”—and by the following Monday, Gauthier had a job. Chalk it up to good luck.
Gauthier is usually the only woman on job sites and says she has to have tough skin. “You can’t be overly sensitive; you have to pick and choose your battles.” But she hasn’t encountered any real harassment.
Other women haven’t been so lucky. Director Lorien Barlow is making a documentary, “Hard Hatted Woman,” that comes out in 2020; the movie illustrates the joys and rewards of construction work for women. However, all five tradeswomen followed in the film experienced significant sexual harassment at various times, “from inappropriate comments to sexual assault,” Barlow explains. “Conversations can be extremely crude; men might have porn on their phones [at work] that’s shown to everyone.” That’s not necessarily the case at the managerial level, but most of the job openings in construction are in the trades.
Without an established web of contacts and mentors, women often struggle to advance. “A lot is based on the soft skills, networking, and many women don’t have entrée to that,” says Barlow. “I’ve rarely met a tradeswoman who’s 100 percent satisfied with the opportunities she’s had for advancement. Maybe she’s been ten years in the industry and is still getting laid off several months out of the year.”
None of the women Curbed spoke to mentioned the physical challenges of the job as a problem, though not everyone is going to be enthusiastic about grappling with a 100-pound panel of drywall. This may not be a gender thing: Many young men are just as unprepared for, or disinterested in, serious physical labor as women.
There are undoubtedly obstacles to women entering construction en masse. But the upsides are significant, according to women currently in the field.
First, of course, is the pay. “There’s serious money to be made,” says Kole Mihalik, a superintendent on job sites for a large Northern Virginia-based general contractor; she started out as a carpenter’s helper two decades ago. The industry’s average wage just topped $30 per hour last month, and can continue to increase as workers gain skills.
Surprisingly, that focus on hard skills helps with gender equity. “If you’ve got the skill and you do good work, you’re equal,” says Mihalik. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women in the construction industry earn 97 cents for every dollar a man earns, compared to the US average of 80 cents.
And the work, she adds, is fulfilling. “I’m still learning every day, after 20 years.”
But to enter the field in any major way, women are going to need some help. Groups like the National Association of Women in Construction and Women in Operations provide networking and mentorship opportunities. But, so far, most of the programs to recruit and train women in hard skills are occurring at the local level. In some areas, large general contractors are collaborating with community colleges to offer a range of courses. There are also one-off programs like the boot camp for women that S&B Engineers and Constructors runs in Houston, Texas, or Power Up, an Alabama-based initiative to interest girls and their mothers in the industry.
The most successful models are the handful of pre-apprenticeship programs that exist in New York, Vermont, Oregon, and a few other states. These initiatives recruit women to take classes over a couple of months that educate them about their options in the industry, train their bodies for the work, and prepare them for the entrance exams offered by trade unions.
“It’s a really rigorous program,” says Amanda Kogut-Rosenau, director of Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), which has been operating in New York City for 40 years. Importantly, the organization does comprehensive outreach, actively recruiting at job fairs, on social media, among TANF recipients, and within the city’s department of education. And the program works: “Our retention rate in placement is over 80 percent. [The women] are really dedicated and focused on the jobs,” says Kogut-Rosenau.
But funding is limited. On the federal side, organizations like NEW are competing for grants through the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) program, which was reduced last year to a total of $1.5 million annually.
If general contractors are serious about reducing the industry’s labor shortage, they might want to start lobbying for increased funding to help train and bring in women, or invest in an advocacy campaign alerting women that job opportunities exist in the field.
There are signs that this work is beginning. The Association of General Contractors (AGC), for example, says it’s committed to attracting more women, and has lobbied for increased funding for technical education. It’s also almost ready to launch a targeted digital advertising campaign to hit certain demographic groups, including women, in seven cities.
“We need to do a better job of telling the story of all the opportunities that exist in this industry,” says Brian Turmail, AGC’s director of public affairs. “It’s not your father’s industry anymore.”