Women: Construction's Untapped Resource

By Christina Fisher | September 28, 2010

Although a career in the construction industry is considered a nontraditional occupation for a woman today, it has not always been this way. Archeological research on prehistoric humans indicates that males and females participated equally in those necessary pursuits of finding food and shelter and raising the young. As our ancestors evolved and survival skills became differentiated between the genders, some archeologists speculate that while the men were out hunting, it was the women who stayed behind and maintained the shelters and developed the agricultural skills that would lead to permanent villages — a precursor to advanced societies. In other words, women were the first urban planners.

Today more than ever, the construction industry offers women tremendous opportunities for employment, entrepreneurship and financial security. And women represent a huge untapped resource for an industry begging for skilled labor and talented professionals.

Construction is one of the nation's largest industries, employing nearly 7 million Americans. There are 240,000 construction jobs available each year, and by 2012 there will be 1 million new jobs available in construction. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, of the 118 million women age 16 years and over in the United States, 70 million — almost 60 percent — are labor force participants. Women comprise 46 percent of the total U.S. labor force and are projected to account for 47 percent of the labor force by 2014. Men's share of the labor force is expected to decrease slightly by 2014 from 53.6 percent to 53.2 percent.

The Women's Bureau points out that economic growth is projected to expand employment opportunities in nontraditional occupations for women. In addition, nontraditional jobs are often attractive to women because they generally offer higher entry-level wages and a career ladder with pay between $20 and $30 per hour. Furthermore, opportunities to own your own firm are better in construction than any other industry. (Women-owned construction companies make up more than 12 percent of the market.)

With so many women in the labor force and opportunities for a successful construction career, why aren't more working in the industry? More importantly, what can be done to change it?

There are, of course, numerous association programs designed to introduce children and young people to the construction industry. From the National Association of Women in Construction's Block Kids competition to the Associated General Contractors of America's Build Up! program for fifth graders, construction industry advocates are constantly working to spread the message about career opportunities.

Without a doubt, attracting women to the construction industry begins by educating them about career opportunities as girls. With construction careers still considered nontraditional options for women, most girls are not encouraged to explore their carpentry skills or consider a position as a project manager. Job shadowing and "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work" day are ideal opportunities for a hands-on approach to the industry.

In fact, this type of peer support or mentor-protégé relationship appears to be crucial to attracting and retaining women to the construction industry.

"Mentoring is critical to getting women in the industry," says Theresa Daytner, owner of Daytner Construction Group in Maryland. "Mentoring brings people together and introduces us to successful owners we'd like to emulate. We have a role model. Mentoring takes my thinking to another level. I can envision an empire and create legacy wealth, and that's real economic empowerment."

The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) has taken mentoring to the next level by signing formal partnering agreements with 22 organizations throughout the United States. Recently, the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and NAWIC signed a joint resolution renewing their partnership agreement and commitment to create opportunities for women and business for women-owned construction firms. In the joint resolution, both ABC and NAWIC commit to work together to prevent discriminatory practices, encourage mutual training and develop mentoring relationships.

According to Christine Sartoris, Member Services field director with ABC, the strength of this partnership will really be at the chapter level. "Mentoring is the most effective way to help minority and women-owned businesses. We will develop models for effective practices and then work with the chapters to develop these (mentoring) relationships."

Even the federal government has recognized the importance of mentoring to attract women to the construction industry. The Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) Act authorized the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to award grants to community-based organizations (CBOs) to promote the recruitment, training, employment, and retention of women in apprenticeship and nontraditional occupations. The program was redesigned for FY 2006, and the USDOL will award up to three grants of $300,000 each to consortia comprised of well-established community-based organizations and registered apprenticeship sponsors. The funds will be distributed at a rate of $150,000 per year for a period of two years.

The new program requires placement of 100 women per year in registered apprenticeships in the construction industry for the two-year duration of the program, wage increases and nine-month retention rates. Information and educational outreach efforts are also anticipated. Grant funds could be used for the following:

  • Preparatory education of women to enter the construction industry, including preparation in both soft skills and hard skills (industry-specific training);
  • Training of apprenticeship sponsors to improve their recruitment, selection and retention processes for women; and
  • Offsetting the cost of equipment, tools, child care, and transportation services for registered apprentices.

At the end of the program, the grant recipients will provide a final report that includes best practices and any positive or negative outcomes.

To establish a mentoring relationship, however, we must get past the image problem of the industry.

"The potential in this industry is huge, and there are opportunities for women from the craft level to the business owner level," says ABC's Christine Sartoris. "However, image is a challenge. We must educate about all of the opportunities. Construction is one of the few industries where you can work your way from the bottom up. You can make the decision to be an owner and work towards that."

Theresa Daytner agrees, and feels that getting girls out in the field to explore all of the opportunities is important. "We haven't given our daughters the best exposure yet to the construction environment. We tend to be the 'suits,' not out in the field. We need more hands-on opportunities."

Daytner also adds that we need to stress the economic benefits of a construction career. "It is education and letting people know about the options, but there is never discussion about money. As a young girl looking at career options, it was always about what I like, not about what I can earn.

"I feel that I have a unique perspective as a woman and a mother in terms of taking responsibility for building a sustainable environment. I think it's maternal instinct. The fact that women are nurturers and caregivers translates well to the built environment. But I can build sustainable and make money; it doesn't have to be charitable. Women have the freedom to say we care and nobody thinks we're not masculine enough. It gives us an advantage in our business models."

Education, creating partnerships at all levels and removing barriers are all factors in developing a diversified, and stronger, construction industry workforce that will take the industry into the 21st century. The actress Lily Tomlin once said, "The road to success is always under construction."

For women, the road to success is in construction as well.