Northwest Women Joining the ranks

Story by Carl Molesworth | September 28, 2010

Times are changing for Northwest women in construction. Once a rarity on job sites, women now are showing up in a variety of roles as the industry evolves to accommodate them.

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, currently there are about 900,000 women working in construction jobs nationwide, which is about 12 percent of the total construction workforce. And with the industry facing an ongoing problem finding skilled replacements for aging workers reaching the end of their careers, there are more opportunities for women to enter the field than ever before.

The challenge, said NAWIC national President Chris Wigginton, is convincing young women to consider a career in construction. A national business analyst for Old-castle in Spokane, Wigginton has seen plenty of changes during her 25 years in the industry.

"I feel the opportunities continue to get better for women," she said. "We have huge workforce needs, so women are being recruited a lot more now. Contractors need us on their job sites. The unions are very much interested in getting women into the trades, too. They need the members."

As might be expected, NAWIC is a leader in the effort to recruit women construction workers, rolling out new programs, offering scholarships and forming alliances to assist in the effort.

"Every meeting I've been to this year has discussed the workforce shortage," she said.

Many of NAWIC's efforts are aimed at educating youngsters about construction careers while they are still in school. One such program is the Block-Kids Building Program, which is aimed at elementary schoolchildren and their parents to try to break down the stigmas attached to construction and present the field as a viable career choice.

Wigginton also mentioned a new program being tried in Georgia called "MAGIC" — Mentor A Girl In Construction. It's a weeklong course for high school girls in a camp setting where they learn about the different trades and also get a chance to visit job sites.

Pam Wright, Region 9 director for NAWIC, said she stresses the financial aspect when talking to high school girls about careers in construction.

"It's pretty good money," she pointed out. "A good wage makes it a wonderful job for single mothers because they can afford day care. But it's also tough, because most day cares don't open at 7 a.m., when the construction work day begins."

Wright, who works in the Tri-Cities at Interwest Technology Systems, a phone and data cabling installer, said women's smaller hands and fine motor skills make them ideal candidates for working as electricians. Other growing fields for women include project management, heavy equipment operation, welding, pipefitting, and painting. Wigginton said she would like to see more women in masonry, but it's a tough trade to break into.

Both women say they have seen the attitudes of male construction workers mellow toward women over the years. Another advance has been the development of smaller tools to fit women's hands, along with more work clothes sized for women.

"All we want to do is go onto a good job site, do our job and go home feeling good about it," Wigginton said.

Surely, that's not too much to ask.