The nuts and bolts behind women in the construction industry

Females in construction are growing in numbers

Sweat, smiles, tattoos and tools; it’s just another day on the job for Whatcom women working in the trades. Whether they’re running a contracting company or are out there in the field, females building careers in construction are growing in numbers, both statewide and nationally.

According to the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington, which provides information on career training and continuing education, the percentage of female construction workers in Washington is among the highest in the United States. Impressive. 

However, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics stated in 2022 that less than 15% of construction workers in the country were female.

 There is surely room to expand those numbers — especially given that women make up 50% of the entire workforce in the U.S. and that the country has a significant construction labor shortage. Craftworkers are aging out of their positions or retiring, and few are stepping in to fill their place. If jobs in the trades are going unfilled, it makes sense to broaden the outreach.

And that’s exactly what organizations like the Washington chapter of the Associated General Contractors is hoping to accomplish alongside local businesses, such as Dawson Construction, with the Celebration of Women in Construction, hosted annually in March by AGCW and the Puget Sound Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. The event, which coincides with Women’s History Month, is open to all genders and serves to highlight the achievements of women in every aspect of the industry.

But many industry leaders agree that encouraging females to apply for positions in the trades must start earlier — in schools and at the dinner table, for example.

“Encouraging girls to take shop classes and learn some carpentry/home improvement skills would help (them) learn, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun, and I can do this stuff,’ and would bring more women into the trades,” said Pat Rose, former owner of Rose Construction.

Parents are starting to realize there are options for their kids that don’t include getting a degree. Mike Rowe — known for his work on “Dirty Jobs,” a Discovery Channel series in which he apprentices himself out for undesirable work — made a bold claim recently about how a four-year degree is essentially a money grab that leaves kids with a six-figure debt, when they could be entering the trades and making six-figure incomes within a few years’ time.

It’s no surprise women see the wisdom in this. But do they feel comfortable and welcomed into the business of running power tools and leading teams of men on construction sites?

Currently, fewer than 1.3 million women work in the construction industry nationally, just under 11% of the total workforce. This is a 3.5% increase from 2022 and an impressive 53% jump in the past decade, according to Bureau of Labor statistics compiled by Fixr.com. It is unclear what defines “working in the trades,” but the assumption is that these positions include everyone from on-site or in-the-field labor workers, plumbers and electricians to related occupations in finance and legal, as well as project managers, engineers and presidents.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research states that women are increasingly being promoted to higher-up leadership positions and going even further to become construction business owners.

Despite these encouraging statistics, our gender remains underrepresented in the field, raising the question: Why? After all, we’ve seen women in trades for half a century or more.

During World War II, due to most American men serving overseas, women took over the mechanical and technical jobs. When the war was over, the men returned to those jobs, but a handful of females decided they liked working in the field better than staying home and remained in their positions in the trades. They fought for more education and opportunities, and although they had some success, such as founding the National Association of Women in Construction in 1953, construction remains one of the most male-dominated industries around.

Inspiring women to apply for these jobs means they need to feel safe, excited and motivated.

Challenges for tradeswomen

Sadly, we’re not yet at the point where men and women make equal wages. In general, the average pay ratio in the U.S. between women and men is 82.9%, meaning women earn just under 83 cents for every dollar earned by a man. However, the good news is, in construction, the gap is “only” 95.5%.

Women still face gender biases and career advancement barriers, but anyone who might say women are not as strong as men — or any female feeling this herself — should consider the advancement of technology. Many tools are no longer manual, and a lot of the physical parts of the job are now easier.

Women also can take on supervisory roles and other positions that are not as physically demanding but that are still required and looked for in the labor force.

Managing subcontractors and payment collection can be an area of struggle for women, due to antiquated biases, such as expecting men to be operating such businesses. Child care is another dilemma, but even the trades have work-from-home roles, such as construction software development or the management of online construction-related courses.

For a broader overlook with an honest, in-depth look into the lives of tradeswomen, the National Center for Construction Education & Research has published a white paper titled “In Her Own Words: Improving Project Outcomes” that outlines 176 interviewed females working in the industry. It is available for free at https://www.nccer.org/in-her-own-words.

Encouraging females into the construction industry

Why do we need more women in construction? Aside from the nation’s significant labor shortage, women can help bring a missing perspective to the workplace, with thoughtfully diverse and out-of-the-box thinking. For example, how often does the construction industry consider its non-male clients — the ones perhaps making the lion’s share of decisions about the home they are building and/or decorating?

“In the home remodeling part of the business, [being female] was an advantage, usually,” Pat Rose said, “as the women clients often felt more comfortable with a woman contractor, and some of the men seemed to feel more comfortable with a woman contractor, too.”

How about women in hiring positions who can reach out to and attract a more distinct and unique team player? For example, Dawson Construction hired Loretta Guerra as vice president of people and administration specifically to focus on improving diversity, attract new talent to the company, and retain the talent the company does have by investing in training and career goals.

Construction is an industry that thrives and functions on problem-solving and multitasking — skills many females come by naturally.

Women in the trades can also become role models, mentors and/or recruiters for younger females who don’t want office work and want good pay. When women support one another, the result can be inspirational and less competitive.

Company culture plays a huge role in attracting women to positions in the trades, and it’s for the benefit of all involved.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the construction industry needs more than two million additional workers in 2024. This creates a huge advantage for anyone looking for well-paid work. For example, in Whatcom County, the starting wage for an apprentice is a minimum of $25 per hour — regardless of gender or ethnicity.

If you’re a company, or a tradesperson yourself, give prospective team members a tour of your business or a-day-in-the-life perspective at your workplace.

What more can be done?

Read more articles like this; search for and join likeminded social media groups; find a mentor; become a mentor; reach out to companies where females are valued and empowered; listen to podcasts; attend female-specific events; volunteer for building programs and community-run projects; join organizations and associations that encourage females in the trades; look for outreach programs; go to career fairs; and, if you’re in the business, use more women in promotional material and content.

Lance Calloway, northern district manager of AGC, states that many construction firms have initiated proactive measures: recruitment strategies, targeted outreach, workplace culture and inclusivity programs and mentorship opportunities to support women throughout their careers in construction.

Still, more companies could improve on the above and take after organizations like AGC of Washington, which has developed its Culture of Care initiative whereby “an intentional and practical culture shift toward diversity and inclusion can positively impact company profitability by improving employee productivity, recruiting and retaining top talent, increasing innovation and creating a safer workplace.”

Workplace behavior and harassment training is also essential for prospective team members, so women don’t feel intimidated, terrorized or bullied while trying to do their jobs.

And let’s not forget the importance of good male role models within the industry, for they are pivotal advocates, business leaders and company owners who can help provide opportunities for women to further themselves and be heard.

I’m interested:
Where do I start?

Contact local resources, like whatcomlocal.com, and search for titles like plumbing or construction. Call or email commercial construction contractors and ask about new hire opportunities or about getting placed in an apprenticeship program.

Those not sure whether committing to construction trades is for them can try volunteer work first. Through Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build program, applicants can build on site, under trained professionals. No experience necessary. Register at https://www.hfhwhatcom.org/get-involved/women-build.

For those who want to be more involved but don’t know where to start, good places to look are Chuckanut Builders, Exxel Pacific, Dawson Construction and other Whatcom County businesses known for fostering good working relationship with their female cohorts.

Chuckanut Builders has a list on its website of local women-owned businesses that may also have great networking opportunities. Visit https://www.chuckanutbuilders.com/2019/02/19/women-in-the-construction-industry/. 

Dawson Construction office employee base is 32% women (well above the industry average) and is on par with the industry average for women employed in the field. Dawson Construction started its Women in Construction group in 2023 and is the title sponsor of the AGC 2024 Celebration of Women in Construction.

Exxel Pacific has its female employees attend career fairs, hosts Women of Exxel events, and volunteers at events like Camp buildHER.

Position choices are almost limitless, and can include: tradesperson, construction manager, team member, architect, engineer, executive, consultant, electrician, safety inspector, fire marshal, pipefitter, equipment operator, traffic control worker — even project drone pilot.

Whether you’re already wearing a hard hat or just dipping a steel-covered toe into the waters, consider looking for a mentor who supports females in construction — or become one yourself. Mentors come in all shapes, sizes and colors, from CEOs, presidents and business owners to other females working in your desired field.

Keep events like Celebration of Women in Construction in mind for March 2025, and mark June 1, 2024, on the calendar as the deadline for Whatcom County’s apprenticeship in construction pre-application program. Visit https://nwagcapprenticeship.org.

Finally, for anyone looking for formal training, Bellingham Technical College offers foundation scholarships for women pursuing trades training. 

Whatcom Community College has a trades program, and Whatcom County offers a contractor apprenticeship program. 

Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Employment for Women offers pre-apprenticeship training programs in construction (https://anewcareer.org), and Western Washington University has online construction training and a program in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (https://careertraining.wwu.edu/construction-and-trades-programs/).

Lynette Brower, director at Northwest Career & Technical Academy, said there is no current plan for construction at the Washington County Skills Center. However, she said, “the programs might morph and change. HVAC-R, maritime and welding would be the most closely aligned programs.”

Brower added that NCTA does currently run a construction program at the Anacortes location, and there are young women in the program.

Also look for places that offer on-the-job training, such as Rose Construction.

Female-friendly resources

In addition to the companies and organizations listed above, join or keep your eye on the following:

AWC (Association of Women Contractors) — https://awcmn.org/

BIAWC (Building Industry Association of Whatcom County) — https://www.biawc.com/

CITC (Construction Industry Training Council) — https://www.citcwa.org/

NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) — https://www.nawicpnw.org/

NW Washington Construction Career Day — May 23

PWC (Professional Women in Construction) — https://pwcusa.org 

WCOE (Women Construction Owners & Executives) — https://www.womenbuildamerica.com

Washington Women in Tradeshttps://www.wawomenintrades.com

Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) – Women and Minorities in Construction — https://wsdot.wa.gov/business-wsdot/equal-opportunity-contracting/diverse-business-programs

2024 Northwest Washington Construction Career Dayhttps://www.constructionfoundation.org/wfdevo/northwest-construction-career-day/

Podcasts to check out 

Ambition Theory “focuses on strategies and thought leadership around creating a workplace where everyone is welcome and everybody can thrive.”

Design Voice Podcast “seeks to elevate and amplify the voices of women in the architecture, engineering and construction professions.”

The Constructrr spotlights companies and gives “voice to the individuals that are uniquely influencing the construction industry.”

The Nuts & Bolts Podcast is “your ultimate guide to navigating and succeeding in the construction industry.”

Remodel Your Life “talks to women working in the skilled trades and breaking down barriers in non-traditional careers.”

Space to Build “promotes the opportunities and challenges that exist in our industry through the lenses of women in construction.”

There’s no better time …

“The mindset for many years is that the trades is a male-only field,” said Rob Lee, CEO and general manager at BIAWC. In Washington state, we are seeing more and more female ownership of construction/remodeling companies, (and) they tend to seek and hire females to round out their workforces.”

Although women are still underrepresented in the construction world, there are more women in Whatcom County in the trades than you might think. And additional females entering the industry will only help change things like gender pay gaps, a lack of resources and the overall limitations put on women through stereotyping and biases.

Companies in the trades that are hiring are desperate for women, people of color and unconventional applicants. Chances are, if you’re hoping to become a tradesperson or fill another sought-after role in construction, you will likely have few obstacles in your way — if you are willing to start anywhere and learn. 

And remember, not all the above career choices mean you will be in the field or on the job site every day, and many of these positions don’t require a college degree, which means education costs less. A lot less.

Plus, you can start earning a minimum of $25 per hour right out the door of any trade school.

More females in the trades means more opportunities for important resources to be found, shared, cherished and experienced. 

Isn’t it about time we hammer home the concept that trades roles and construction is a career choice for women as well?  ν

Stay tuned for Part 2 — Nailing it: Women in construction challenging stereotypes — in the May/June issue of Business Pulse.