Way past Rosie the Riveter: Women make strides in the construction industry

In the not-too-distant past, women in hard hats were scarce as construction trades were generally considered a man's domain. There was a time when women were lumped only into receptionist-type work and not allowed on worksites. But as women continue to gain employment in the construction sector, this stereotype is steadily changing.
In the not-too-distant past, women in hard hats were scarce as construction trades were generally considered a man's domain. There was a time when women were lumped only into receptionist-type work and not allowed on worksites.

As women continue to gain employment in the construction sector, this stereotype is steadily changing. According to a Huffington Post by by Kimberly Gallagher based on her own experiences in the industry, “old stereotypes do not ring true for the industry as a whole and there many men who see women as equals.” Today, women regularly populate construction sites and are both respected and highly capable of performing the various tasks associated with producing or remodeling a building.

As the demand for skilled workers has increased, gender barriers are fading while the opportunities in the ever-expanding construction industry continue to grow.

Women are not just pouring concrete or swinging a hammer, either. Many are in management and supervise construction sites. In fact, women who are leaders in the Grand Rapids construction industry would like to see more women take advantage of the opportunities to make a contribution by adopting careers in the building trades.

Jenny Waugh, marketing and operations director for Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, Inc. (FTC&H) oversees the strategy for imaging and branding for the nationally recognized firm. FTC&H is well respected for its expertise in engineering, environmental sciences, architecture, and construction management.

A veteran of more than twelve years in the industry, Waugh says, “The construction trades are rife with opportunity and I would love to see more women pursue a career in engineering and construction." Waugh regularly puts her words into action by serving as a role model and professional example to women in the industry. She has served on the board of directors for the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and has also chaired many of its sub-committees.

“NAWIC got its start when 16 women working in the Texas construction industry founded Women in Construction in 1953. The founders recognized that women only represented a tiny fraction of the industry and organized to create a much-needed support network,” according to an article in the March 2017 issue of Construction in Focus Magazine.

Women in Construction of Fort Worth was so successful that it amended its charter to incorporate other chapters in Texas and throughout the nation. In doing so, on May 17, 1955, they became The National Association of Women in Construction and earned their national charter. Today, NAWIC provides 150 chapters and over 4,000 members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, leadership training, public service, and more.

The Grand Rapids chapter of NAWIC (#194) was founded in 1973 and focuses on learning opportunities for women in the industry. These include monthly meetings, speaker events, job site visits, and continuing education opportunities through the NAWIC Education Foundation, an educational nonprofit founded by the NAWIC in 1972. The GR chapter even offers a scholarship program to assist students studying the fields of engineering, construction management, architecture, and special trades.

Waugh encourages women in construction to join the NAWIC. It is her belief that membership is invaluable for women who are trying to establish careers in the industry. Additionally, Waugh participates in workforce development student initiatives that expose students as early as elementary-age to careers in the construction industry. She focuses on inspiring young women to choose careers in the building trades where the opportunities for women continue to grow.

"The careers of our members vary from project managers, administration professionals and engineers to financial professionals, lawyers, and computer aided drafters," says GR chapter President Erin Caszatt, who is also a structural detailer for Soils and Structures, a Muskegon-based engineering and consulting firm.

"We have seen many more women in the labor and skilled trades side of our industry in the last few years, but the demands of the job often prevent participation in events. The struggle to balance work, home, and life is real. Weather the member or potential member has a family or not, the extreme demands of our industry often require long hours, late nights, and weekend work," she adds.

These challenges are evident at a national level. According to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represented just 9.1 percent of the construction workforce in 2016 and just 6.7 percent of managers in the industry.
Underrepresentation in such high-paying industries can be one of the major reasons that women earn less than men. Women pursuing careers in construction may help to affect these statistics.

“We are greatly outnumbered by men in the industry,” said NAWIC President Connie Leipard in the Construction in Focus article. “It is a male dominated culture. At times it is difficult for women to get a foot in the door in upper management positions. The trend is changing somewhat but...it has to be an intentional thought process to help women feel a part of the team when they feel outnumbered. And so we try to open a dialogue with employers on that.”

In an effort to support women in the industry, the U.S. Department of Labor has stepped up its involvement by awarding millions of dollars in grants for apprenticeship programs that expand opportunities for women and minorities. Some of the grants targeting women offer essential needs by Identifying resources for supportive services including child care, transportation, support groups, and other efforts to remove barriers to women succeeding in these industries. Additionally, the grants allow potential employers to develop connections with pre-apprenticeship programs and create orientations for employers to create a successful environment for women in apprenticeship programs.

Michigan was awarded $2.5 million from the grant program in late 2016. According to an article in Crain’s Detroit Business announcing the award:

“State workforce administrators said the money will be used to create more registered apprenticeship programs aimed at women, veterans and underrepresented groups in such industries as agriculture, construction, energy, health care, information technology and manufacturing. The state said it intends to boost the number of apprenticeships by 5 percent by May 2018, with about 1,000 new participants.”

Efforts to recruit and train women for careers in the construction trades continue to escalate at both at the national and local levels. In fact, the number of firms specializing in recruiting women for construction jobs has increased rapidly in the last few years. In Grand Rapids, there are a number of local firms and agencies who regularly recruit and help train women for the building trades.

West Michigan Works!, a workforce development resource organization, consistently showcases career paths to non-traditional populations, according to Deb Lyzenga, their regional director of business solutions. One of the organization’s major initiatives that exposes large numbers of students to careers is MiCareerQuest. This annual event, most recently held in April of this year, exposed 8,500 students from our seven-county region to careers in construction and three other employment sectors. “Although it its too early to see if more diverse populations enter into non-traditional careers, it is our hope that this event will pique the curiosity and lead to more exposure,” says Lyzenga.

Women in construction continue to be a significant part of the growth of the construction trades in Grand Rapids and throughout the nation, and the efforts of local and national leaders continue to make the possible a reality for more and more women. Additionally, with more women in the industry, more mentors are produced that can encourage those just embarking in the field to realize that is can be a long-term career.

"Whether they are male or female, we need to attract more people into our work force," says Caszatt. "Our association membership may be only women, but we want to advance the industry as a whole."

“Constructing the future” is a new 12-part series from Rapid Growth that will explore issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends, and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country.

This article is an amended version of the original piece, published on Thursday, June 29.

Ken James, the editor of this series, is active in the community and committed to issues surrounding growth, development, opportunity, and access. He has been in West Michigan for 23-plus years. Ken enjoys spending time with his family while enjoying what West Michigan has to offer. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on LinkedIn.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.