Ironworker apprentice Natalie Bell displays her Rosie the Riveter tattoo that she describes as a symbol of strength, March 22, 2023, at the Iron Workers 172 Training Center in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for States Newsroom)
Natalie Bell was thinking about a career in art after college when a welding class and a delivery of four pizzas changed her career trajectory.
“I was taking a delivery out to a construction site and I met an ironworker who I was taking the delivery to,” said Bell, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, are you looking for apprentices? I don’t want to do college anymore, but I’m a welder.’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and he gave me the number to the ironworkers union.”
Bell, now 23, said she was worried at first about being accepted.
“I took my interview and I was so scared because I was like, ‘They’re not going to accept me. I’m a woman trying to do construction.’ I didn’t know how things worked at all,” she said.
Bell, who entered the industry in 2019, said working in construction has its challenges but the money provides her with a decent lifestyle and good health insurance.
“I live very comfortably … I’m going to Iceland in July just because I can,” she said. “I can go do that. I can take a vacation every year. I don’t have to worry about medical bills because I have phenomenal insurance.”
The Biden administration is counting on more women like Bell seeing the value of jobs in the construction industry. Over the next decade, the administration wants to add a million more women in construction jobs to aid in infrastructure projects across the country, including its effort to increase semiconductor manufacturing. The success of that effort will depend on the federal policies now being put in place and changes to an industry that’s not known for being welcoming to women.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 1.2 million women were employed in construction in 2020, and a University of Michigan analysis of the data found that women have gained jobs “at three times their share of the industry,” since the beginning of the pandemic.
Women were slowly but surely entering more male-dominated occupations before the pandemic, said Betsey Stevenson, an economist and professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan who did the analysis with Benny Docter, a senior data and policy analyst at the university.
Women lost jobs in education and in the service industry during the pandemic and as they returned to work many shifted to new occupations that reflect changing market conditions, according to their analysis.
“I think that the important takeaway is that women can be an important source of labor for the construction industry,” Stevenson said in an email. “While child care is important for women, it is equally important to note that construction as an industry risks losing more male workers due to childcare conflicts. The childcare requirements in the CHIPS Act is there to help ensure a sufficient workforce is able to take on the work that is being funded.”
The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, aims to increase the country’s production of chips which are seen as essential for the military and for the economy because of their use in autos and all manner of electronics. The bill provides roughly $40 billion to build or expand plants, and already Intel is building a megaproject near Columbus, Ohio.
But to receive federal subsidies the law requires companies to ensure that the workers they hire, including construction workers building the plants, have access to affordable and high-quality childcare.
Finding affordable, quality child care is an issue for many parents, but it can be even more of a struggle for construction workers because daycares typically open after they are already supposed to be at work. That can be particularly hard on single parents.
Grecia Palomar, a 29-year-old single mother of two in Little Canada, Minn., spent seven years hanging drywall at Reshetar Systems, a commercial drywall and carpentry business, before leaving to become a drywall instructor for Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest. Palomar said she was only able to manage when her children were younger because her employer allowed her to arrive later and work later.
Palomar said that even though she had grown up around job sites because her father worked in construction, she hadn’t considered it as a potential career until she moved back to Minnesota from Illinois with two young children to support. With one child in need of occupational and speech therapies, Palomar said she needed to make more than the $8 an hour she had earned as a preschool teacher. Her father suggested construction. She made $13 an hour when she started in the industry, and now makes $40 an hour.
Who is turning to construction careers?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics survey doesn’t explain the employment background of women newly entering construction, but several people working in the construction industry said they have seen women coming from what are considered service jobs.
Mary Ann Naylor, communications and marketing director for Oregon Tradeswomen, an apprenticeship-readiness program in Portland, said that the women seeking out the program often come from retail, hospitality, restaurants and childcare, which often pays low wages and offers few benefits. She added that since the pandemic, she has seen more unemployed people and people leaving healthcare jobs to look into the skilled construction trades.
Some of the advantages of construction that appeal to new workers are paid training and lack of student debt. Joy Merryman, a plumber and pipefitter who lives in Pickerington, Ohio, and works in Columbus, said she enjoys knowing that her labor will benefit the community, including her work on recreation centers. And she’s so happy with her career choice that she now does outreach — planning events, job fairs and school visits — for the Central Ohio Women in the Trades.
John Burcaw, director of academic education and CEO of the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest in Little Canada, Minn., said he’s seen workers come from similar employment backgrounds as Naylor mentioned. He said that there are also more opportunities for people starting a career in construction to possibly become project managers, estimators, entrepreneurs, educators, or labor leaders than when he began doing this work 33 years ago.
Harassment still a problem
But there are still challenges with both recruitment and retainment of women in construction.
Women’s experiences often depend on the kind of support they have inside and outside the job, such as unions, women’s trade groups and foremen who push back against gender-based discrimination.
In addition to the childcare needs, work sites can still be rife with sexual harassment. All of the women working construction interviewed by States Newsroom said they have faced some kind of sexual harassment on the job, whether it was inappropriate comments on their appearance, nonconsensual touching, or “jokes that go too far.”
Bell, the welder, said she has walked off jobs and once filed a complaint over sexual harassment, but has also had experiences where she has talked for foremen and had problems taken care of.
“I’ve been touched on the job site without consent. I’ve been yelled at in my face. I’ve been told I don’t belong there. I’ve been belittled, and I’m a minority so I’ve been made fun of or talked down to in that sense,” Palomar said. “But I had an awesome contractor who always had my back and if I didn’t feel safe somewhere, I could just call them and they would be there for me and I think that helped me get through that. Without their support and their trust and my union backing me up, I don’t think I would have been able to have the patience and the determination to stay there because it is overwhelming.”
Merryman, 37, who has worked in construction for 10 years in Ohio, said having supportive people around you helps, and that it’s easy to understand why women without that advantage end up leaving construction.
“I think a big part of the issue with retaining people is you start to feel very alienated, you feel very alone and you question yourself,” she said. “Am I crazy for being grossed out by what that dude just said to me? Am I crazy for not wanting to have to listen to what he thinks about my body while I’m at work?”
There are educational efforts to make the workplace more welcoming to women, Burcaw said. The Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest is starting a program in the fall that advises men on how to be good allies to women in construction when they face gender-based harassment and discrimination.
Addressing the federal government’s ambitious goal to add one million more women in construction jobs at a Tradeswomen Build Nations conference last fall, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she had heard from women about the challenges they faced on sites. She then added, “Women don’t want to deal with the BS. They just want to do their jobs.”
Sharita Gruberg, vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families, said there will need to be sufficient monitoring and enforcement from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure that underrepresented workers aren’t being pushed out of jobs due to sexual harassment and discrimination.
“Because of these other barriers, it is in all of our interests to make sure that these investments are supporting good jobs, safe jobs, because we’re just not going to have the workforce that we need to translate these investments into successful outcomes without also prioritizing equal opportunity enforcement and making sure that women are safe and in these roles,” Gruberg said.
This month, the Department of Labor also announced it was launching an initiative “to promote equal opportunity by federal contractors in the construction trades on large federally funded projects.”
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is going to work with the General Services Administration and the Department of Transportation to make sure contractors and subcontractors receive no-cost help to improve recruitment and hiring practices to ensure more women and other underrepresented workers are able to join the construction industry.
The initiative is connected to the OFCCP’s Mega Construction Project Program that rewards projects expected to last for one year and make a positive economic difference in communities. Gruberg said some of the construction work on semiconductor facilities and highways and transportation could qualify.
“One exciting thing about the Mega projects are that there are 16 affirmative action steps that are part of these projects to really make sure that on the front end, companies are supported in how they can comply with the equal opportunity requirements of these investments,” Gruberg said. “So making sure that they are increasing representation of qualified workers from underrepresented groups in the construction trades, which includes women.”
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