As the construction industry has ramped up since the Great Recession, there has been a good deal of conversation about the shortage of skilled workers for the new projects .
Suggestions on how to fill the growing labor gap are many, but perhaps the most obvious - and potentially simplest - idea is to take a better look at the pool of potential workers locally. There seems to be a nearsighted view of who is available to train for today's and tomorrow's skilled labor jobs, and as a result half of the workers that should be considered for training and hiring don't make it into the employers or job training program's sites.
In a recent article, Rod Sutton, editorial director of Construction Equipment magazine, talked with Dave Walsh of Miron Construction in Neenah, Wisconsin about their upcoming event, "Build Like a Girl".
Walsh's initiative was designed to encourage young women in junior and senior high school to take a closer look at the building industry and the opportunities for satisfying and well-paying careers.
Walsh said the company was inspired to set up the event after seeing a contractor in the south doing something similar. “It’s an untapped market,” Walsh says. “Here in Wisconsin, we’re proud of both genders’ ability to put in a good day’s work.” At this age, however, students are easily embarrassed in front of the other gender, he says, which is why they are doing a separate event.
“The girls will have the opportunity to hear what it sees and feels like to do the work,” Walsh says. “We’re providing information on salary and benefits in these strong, good positions.”
“Build Like a Girl” was held June 24 at Miron Construction’s headquarters in Neenah. Walsh and his organizers worked with local school guidance counselors to get the word out to the girls. Several employees had daughters who attended the event and no doubt did their own social networking. Thirty girls had the chance to attend, the average age being 14.
Walsh's idea was to show the girls what real-world construction is, give them some mentoring time with tradeswomen already in the industry, and encourage the girls to see the opportunities and wages available to them, especially in apprenticeships.
In arranging the day’s activities, the organizers kept in mind the dictum that watching work being performed is one thing; getting a chance to do it is another. To make sure the young women got the most out of their attendance, they had the chance to get some hands-on experience running machinery, building cement block walls, prepping and pouring cement, and experiencing a live jobsite.
Walsh said he hopes the students saw apprenticeships as a way to gain on-the-job training without taking the loads of debt that now so often come with a college diploma. “One of the selling points of an apprenticeship is we pay you to train in the craft,” Walsh said.
Among the mentors speaking at the event was Amanda Manteufel, a project manager at Miron Construction. Manteufel remembers being attracted to engineering at a young age. As a child, she played with things like Legos and dump trucks, and, in middle school, would tell people she wanted to be an engineer.
Manteufel lost some of her enthusiasm, though, when she got to high school because she had come to assume that an engineering job would be nothing but a deskbound slog with few opportunities to work with others. Her interest was piqued again only when she looked through a course catalog for a civil-engineering program. In participating in Miron’s event, Manteufel said her goal is to let others hear of the satisfaction she gets out of a career in construction.
“One of the biggest aspects is being able to build something and see the finished product,” she said.
Walsh said he hopes the exclusive use of women mentors to run the show helped get a crucial point across to attendees. “The whole idea is to see someone doing it, someone like themselves, being successful and active in the field,” he said.
National employment data shows that women in the past decade make up less than 10 percent of the construction industry workforce, but even with the demand for more skilled workers that percentage isn't increasing.
Events like "Build Like a Girl" are valuable to both the students and the construction employers because young women don't often get a chance to get hands-on experience to generate interested in construction as a career.
The Miron Construction event showed the girls not only what actually construction jobs are like, it allowed them to meet women who are successful in their construction careers, and demonstrated that there are construction companies - like Miron - who see the potential of these students and are actively seeking them out for apprenticeships to fill the company's future skilled worker jobs.