Women Wanted

By Sara Murray | September 28, 2010

From the Arizona Republic, July 31, 2007; reprinted with permission

Arizona's construction industry is desperately seeking ways to increase its ranks of skilled workers, particularly as the Baby Boom generation starts to take early retirement in 2008.

The Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University may have found one answer.

This fall the school is set to enroll its largest number of women ever, largely due to the efforts of its new female recruiter, officials said.

Melissa Luna was tapped for the job in November after the school received a $200,000 donation from Jeff Ehret, alumnus and president of the PENTA Building Group in Las Vegas. "I know my goal is to continually see an increase in females," said Luna, who had conducted student recruiting and human resource recruiting for various universities and private companies.

"It takes a lot more to show the possibilities because it has not been something that has been reinforced with females in the past."

While the school has been growing at about 11 percent annually, the ratio of males to females has remained nearly constant with women making up only about 10 percent of students, said Director James Ernzen.

The ratio appears to be closing.

The school currently counts a total student population of 375 males and 43 females.

This fall, 98 students will enter the school, 14 of which are women.

On average only four or five females enter the school as first-time college freshmen, Luna said. This year 13 of the 14 women are first-time college freshmen. Two Valley construction companies and one California company are funding 13 grants for students. Eight are specifically for women.

Each student will receive $1,000 for the year except for one out-of-state female who will receive $1,500, Luna said.

All students who received grants were in the top 25 percent of their high school classes.

In past years, the school tried to meet industry demand but had difficulty because it did not have a recruiting budget, said Matthew Eicher, manager of industry relations.

"We just left the door open and hoped that people would come in," he said.

Luna attends career fairs, partners with high schools and trade schools, and meets with school counselors to update them on construction careers.

"What I tell the females when I am recruiting them is that there are job opportunities," she said. "They will be more marketable because the industry is looking for more females."

Nationwide women comprised more than 9.5 percent of workers in the construction industry in 2006, down slightly from about 10.5 percent a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Economically in Arizona we're going to be hit hard if we don't get students and especially women to go into the construction industry," said Rose Ann Canizales, president of the Phoenix chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction.

By 2014 the state could be short 40,000 such employees, according to trade group data.

Reason for the shortage is an aging workforce that's set to retire and a lack of interest among students, especially women, in pursuing careers in skilled crafts.

"We have a shift in direction of where young people want to go and work today," said David Jones, president and CEO of the Arizona Contractors Association. "The need for a workforce is going to be very critical."

Candidates with a bachelor's degree in construction or science management received average starting salary offers of $42,923, according to a July 2005 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But some companies that actively promote diversity have been known to offer more.

"They do offer the women in the program a little bit more money to woo them into their companies and that's great," Eicher said.

Women tended to flock to residential housing until the market began to slow about a year or two ago, he said. Often it's the already established female presence that is responsible for enticing new workers.

"I think there tends to be more visibility as far as other senior leaders in those companies that were women," Eicher said.

The lack of female faculty members has been a hindrance for attracting women to the school, he added.

"It has always been difficult no matter what the engineering curriculum ... to get women to come in," he said. "They're heavily recruited in the industry. It's hard to draw them back."

To try to remedy the absence of female role models, the school tries to pair incoming students with upperclass females as part of a mentor system, Luna said.

She added that hiring a female recruiter puts the school another step closer to shrinking the divide.

"I think it would probably always help to have a face that they can relate to," Luna said. "The recruiting face they see is female so that does help."