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Building a path: How targeted events can draw women into construction

Years after the Great Recession sent shock waves through the construction industry, companies are still struggling to find enough workers to meet their labor needs. 

The industry lost 2.3 million members — 40% of the workforce — between April 2006 and January 2011. Of those 2.3 million workers, six out of 10 left construction for prospects in another sector or left the workforce entirely by 2013. 

As the construction industry continues to face challenges filling its worker pipeline, contractors need to adopt new methods for attracting the next generation of skilled labor. In a field that remains predominantly male, that means shifting recruitment methods to pique the interest of more underrepresented groups.
 
In the U.S., women comprise only 9% of total construction employment — and that number falls off sharply when adjusted to account for those in leadership roles or in the trades. To account for the lag in representation, some companies and nonprofits are launching initiatives to target girls and women to interest them in the construction trades through events and mentorship approaches designed specifically for them.
 
Whether through educating young girls with hands-on programs or through empowering adult women with female mentors, construction companies can work to draw the underrepresented demographic to the field by tailoring programs to show them their potential in the industry.

Getting hands-on

Events like Habitat for Humanity’s National Women Build Week not only aim to support local communities, but also to promote the idea that women can make a difference through the construction trades.
 
The program works with groups to renovate homes that have fallen into disrepair and to build homes from the ground up for families in need.
 
Since the program’s launch in 2008, National Women Build Week has seen more than 100,000 volunteers. The program has expanded from 39 communities a decade ago to more than 300 this year, according to Talia Moffitt, a senior specialist for public and media relations at Habitat for Humanity International.
 
While this event may be a one-off volunteer experience for some, the program has left a deeper mark on other women volunteers. 
 
Christine Panagopoulos, director of construction at Trinity Habitat for Humanity in Fort Worth, TX, co-owned a single-family homebuilding company and became a Fort Worth city inspector before she joined Habitat and the local Women Build Week team.
 
At Trinity, she said, the organization has a core group of volunteers who go through a five-week leadership training program before taking the lead onsite. As a teacher and trainer for the program, Panagopoulos said that five years ago, attendees of the first few sessions were predominantly male. Though women still aren’t among the majority, the latest May session of the program, she said, had more women involved than ever before. 
 
For construction professionals, Panagopoulos said, attracting more women to the industry starts with taking them seriously.
 
“We’re capable, we’re knowledgeable and we’re just as in tune to the musings that go on in the industry,” she said. “[Women Build Week] is a lot of exposure to things we didn’t know we could do before, so I tell people to ask more questions and get out of their comfort bubble. The event is about getting women into the construction zone and realizing they can do anything they open their minds to, as long as they’re willing to take the chance.”
 
Panagopoulos attributes a large part of the program’s success to the gratification that women feel as a result of having the opportunity to work in construction in the first place.
 
“For a lot of women, it’s something they never experienced before. Once they try it, they realize they can do it, and they keep coming back [to volunteer] again,” she said.

More than 100,000 women have participated across all 50 states in Habitat for Humanity's National Women Build Week. 
 

Apart from entry-level experience into the trades, Moffitt said the event allows other experienced women in the industry to make the calls on the job site when ordinarily they may not have that opportunity.
 
“A lot of heads of construction on Build Week are women. From a leadership standpoint, they take the lead whereas, maybe, during the rest of the year, there would be a male lead,” Panagopoulos said. “There’s a domino effect where women learn new construction skills, and it empowers them to take on other challenges in their lives. When you think you can’t do something and then you learn that you can, you start to think about what other things you can do.” 
 
Donna Ricca volunteers for Morris Habitat for Humanity in New Jersey five days a week and is a long-time Women Build Week participant. Often a construction lead on local projects, Ricca got her start painting houses for a woman-owned construction company to help pay her way through college and later graduate, before cycling through stints as the first female police officer in Summit, NJ, and as a psychologist. 
 
“I’m used to being in a place where it’s new for the people who are already there to see someone like me come in,” Ricca said. “I just work really hard, I show enthusiasm and, eventually, I wear them down and they think ‘Oh, she can do something.’”
 
While Ricca said she’s used to breaking into nontraditional roles, the barriers for women entering the construction trades can begin long before people reach the job site. 
 
“The type of education and ideas [people] may have about what a woman can do start so much before the job site. It’s what we tell boys growing up, things like ‘You throw like a girl,’ can be so damaging,” she said. “I’ve asked for jobs and had people flat out say, ‘There’s no way I’m hiring a girl.’”
 
To combat negative assumptions about their abilities, Ricca said, women need to have the motivation and desire to push themselves and be willing to test their limits. 
 
“I wish I could say you don’t have to work twice as hard to get half the credit, but you do. I’m not saying I’m okay with it, but you can’t walk around angry about it,” she said. “You have to think ‘I may not be able to do everything, but I’m willing to try.’ A lot of what we’re met with is what they think we can’t do, so for women, it’s about showing people what we can do.”
 
Once women get a foot in the door, Ricca said, companies need to be diligent about making the workplace equal, from having equipment that fits properly to instituting policies that combat workplace harassment and ensure safeguards against those who defy the policies.
 
For Ricca, equipment designed to fit women’s proportions is just one way job sites can become a more welcoming place. 
 
“For me, with Habitat for Humanity builds, it was about starting with gloves that would fit [women’s] hands,” she said. “Eventually they did, and small things like that, those unspoken things, can make you feel like they want you there.”
 
Another way to encourage women is to change the language on the job site. “When I hear leaders of groups say, ‘I need a couple of strong guys here,’ I’ll make a joke and say, ‘Actually, you need a couple of strong people.’ Subtle things like that that can make people feel shut out is something simple we can change,” she said.

Encouraging the young

Bringing more women into the industry can also mean making construction more accessible to girls from a young age. 
 
“They’re pushing in schools now for kids to choose their career path in eighth or ninth grade, and we want to be there to target that audience if the schools are going to target them that early on,” said Dave Walsh, vice president of human resources for Wisconsin-based Miron Construction.
 
Since its first program in summer 2016, Walsh has worked with the company’s Build Like a Girl initiative to expose between 30 and 40 girls in grades seven through 10 to construction by getting them experience on the job site.

Miron Construction's Build Like a Girl program aims to introduce the construction trades to girls early on by targeting those in seventh through 10th grade. 
 

 
During the day-long program, girls are mentored by women who work with Miron Construction, from project managers to tradespeople, who help teach the girls to work with anything from putting together concrete blocks to operating a crane in order to get a hands-on look at the industry.
 
“It’s one thing to see a PowerPoint presentation or a video about construction, but we thought, ‘Is there anything more fun than getting hands-on into it?,’” Walsh said. “Like with any apprenticeship, they get to pick up a block and see how heavy it is, put it together with mortar and pour the concrete. There’s no use to this day if they don’t get to have that experience.”
 
For Walsh, the big picture for Build Like a Girl means that everyone benefits from diversity in the industry. “As a father of daughters, I’m excited to see something in my industry that champions the idea of having women in construction,” he said.
 
The program seems to be working — Walsh said local high school career counselors have sent applications from girls to work with Miron in apprenticeships because the counselors had seen advertisements for Build Like a Girl. 
 
“Build Like a Girl is the long game — we’re trying to set up our plate now for a little ways down the road,” he said. “If we can get one or two girls interested in construction, then everyone wins.”

A foot in the door

One of the strongest support systems in place for women is still one of the industry’s greatest challenges — having enough women in leadership roles who can act as mentors to women starting out in the field. 
 
“My supervisor was a woman, and that contributed a lot to my success — walking in and seeing that this was an organization that supports women in construction,” Ricca said. 
 
Sue Klawans, senior vice president and corporate director of operational excellence and planning at Gilbane, said sponsorship can be even more important than mentorship when it comes to promoting workers’ success. 
 
“Sponsorship means going one step deeper and saying, ‘How else do we, as a company, pave the way for individuals to succeed?’” she said.
 
For Klawans, that means helping behind the scenes by guiding workers in their five- and 10-year plans, but also visibly promoting good work to highlight employees’ achievements.
 
At Gilbane, Klawans said the company has been working for more than a decade with the goal of having at least half of their new hires come from diverse backgrounds, in turn, leading to a greater pipeline of women and people of color moving through to project manager and senior management levels.
 
“Diverse teams outperform standard teams,” she said. “Whether that’s experience, gender or race, diversity isn’t just one thing, but this idea that diverse teams get better results has driven Gilbane.”

Events like National Women Build Week and Build Like a Girl can serve as a template for companies looking to fill their lagging worker pipelines and integrate underrepresented groups into their teams.
 

Beyond getting more underrepresented groups in the door, Gilbane is revamping its talent management process to have a separate step that focuses on the leadership potential for women and people of color. 
 
“We track people who are emerging leaders in our company on the basis of their experience and demonstrating other business acumen, emotional intelligence and other characteristics of a leader,” she said. “What we’re finding with this push for diversity and inclusion is that the rate at which women are added to that leadership pool is faster than the general population.”
 
In the past three years, she said, Gilbane has added at least one woman to its executive management ranks per year. Klawans attributes part of that progress to Gilbane’s recognition of women who excel in the field. She said the other part of it likely comes from strong benefits, such as a 14-week parental leave program, that can help accommodate a better work-life balance.

But before women can make it to the top levels at a company like Gilbane, employers need to make sure they are sufficiently filling their worker pipeline. Klawans said Gilbane has worked with programs such as Massachusetts’ Girls in Trades Conference and the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Mentor Program to encourage newcomers to the industry and potential future employees.
 
The Girls in Trades Conference allows students and educators to find opportunities for apprenticeships and training programs, meet women in the construction trades and learn how to approach the path to future career opportunities in the industry. 

ACE allows high school students to team up with architects, contractors and engineers to explore the industry first-hand. Students can later go on to pursue career technical education, internships with firms in membership companies and even seek out employment or apprenticeships down the line.
 
For Klawans, these programs can be individually fulfilling in the short-term — but their real importance comes from their ability to serve as a stepping stone for future opportunities. 
 
“The whole idea of doing these events is to get someone’s interest, and then from that flows internships and other opportunities that would help someone build on from an interesting event into actual career development,” she said. “You can do these one-and-done events, but after you’ve piqued a person’s interest, how are you going to provide them the path to go do this?”

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Top image credit: Habitat for Humanity