By Kristi Waterworth
When the real estate bubble burst in 2007 and the recession hit hard, it was the construction industry that bore the brunt of the initial wave that would eventually engulf almost every industry in America. A total of 1.5 million residential construction workers, from laborers to Masters, left the industry, finding space in other fields or choosing to retire.
Since then, a full decade later, only about half of those workers have returned. What’s worse is that for every skilled worker that re-enters the field, five retire. Five. The industry is hemorrhaging talent. In July 2018 alone, there were 273,000 unfilled jobs in construction, 6,000 more than the number unfilled at the height of the recession.
You don’t have to be an economist to realize that this is a serious issue — in fact, you probably live the same chaos as other crews that are spread too thin and worked too hard because there simply isn’t anyone else to do the job. You know this means a whole lot of industrial accidents waiting to happen in a field that’s already notorious for being dangerous to life and limb.
But what if it didn’t have to be?
Sampling the Construction Sector’s Workforce
Between the now-absent immigrant workers that would have normally been part of most crews across the country and those young men who have little interest in construction jobs, a lack of workers is pushing the industry close to a breaking point. New hires have to come from somewhere, but where?
Well, as it turns out, 97 percent of the field is male. That’s right, only three percent of the workforce is female. This isn’t for a lack of women interested in the trades — in fact, they would love the increased income and opportunities to gain specialized skills.
The problem, for the entire sector, is often how women are treated while in the field. Muttered accusations of sexual harassment and full-on assault aren’t uncommon, though they are likely underreported. One female apprentice lineman who spoke to me under the condition of anonymity explained just a few of the many challenges she faces day to day at her job.
“I deal with a lot of hazing types of situations. I’ve been told to my face many times that women shouldn’t have this job, or that I’m taking a man’s job…it’s not a welcoming world. Every day there’s a new challenge that us girls have to face on our own. I’ve been at my job for over three years and it never seems to really slow down. I bust my butt every day on the job and new hires with zero experience and who don’t work get more respect simply because they are men.”
When asked about approaching her company about these issues, she explained “my company has a hotline we can call but other reports have always had names leak out so I don’t trust that at all. It’s not worth my job.”
The women who are in the field are very capable, despite what many seem to believe. Often, people argue that a woman lacks the strength or stamina to work a construction job and that they’ll only slow the crew down. This has been an argument also used to exclude female police and soldiers from many types of duties.
Just like female soldiers aren’t generally expected to strangle their adversaries with their bare hands, female members of the construction sector have access to the same range of tools and technology as everyone else. For example, even though women are physically capable of banging nails into boards, even all-male crews don’t always bother with that these days. Instead framers and other builders use pneumatic nail guns for a faster and more consistent result.
Welcoming Women Can Save the Industry
The 240,930 or so ladies already in the construction industry mean business, they work hard at their trades and feel the same kind of fulfillment as the men that work alongside them. Still they remain an invisible asset to the field, one that could stop the deadly spiral that’s plaguing construction jobs industry-wide.
If you want more people to come into the construction industry, you have to make it possible for them to thrive and survive. Our lady lineworker explains the kind of behavior that’s keeping women out of the trades. Her voice adds to the many women who continue to raise these alarms.
“Women are pushed out and pushed against from the moment they walk in the door. Most of us grin and bear it, participate in the jokes, and play along, because it’s our only choice. There needs to be MAJOR changes, started from the ground.
Companies preach zero tolerance policies, and that may be true from the HR aspect but from the ground? It’s all talk.
Supervisors aren’t safe to talk to. Managers definitely aren’t. It’s us girls against the world out here. My company has talked about pursuing more female applicants but until there is a heart change from the ground up, it’s going to be a difficult battle.”
One GC’s Perspective
You may be thinking that utility workers are a whole different brand from residential or commercial construction crews. From my own experience, I can say that this is not true at all. Before the real estate bust, I was a Realtor and a general contractor. On my job sites, it was business as usual, but every trip for supplies meant comments and sneers.
I remember a specific event that really drove it home to me that being a woman in the trades could be quite dangerous. It was a cold January morning, and the wind chill had to be below zero. Unfortunately, I was on a deadline and the porch of a remodel needed to be redecked. The porch was small – so I wasn’t paying for lumber delivery.
I ran to Lowe’s by myself, picked my lumber and checked out. As I wheeled my sticks to the truck, I noticed two men following me. They started calling to me, trying to get my attention. Having been born female and lived that way all my life, I knew better than to turn or acknowledge them.
When I did get to the truck, they were still trailing me. “Hey, girl, let the men load those up for you.” “What are you building, a playhouse?” “Where’s your husband? Why isn’t he buying his own boards?” I stacked lumber as fast as I could. I wasn’t hanging around for that business. Finally, I lucked out. A third guy walked over and jumped on the two that were heckling me. “She looks like she’s doing just fine without your help. Get your *** in the truck.”
While I was in no real danger, not that time, facing this sort of attitude on a daily basis is a major morale buster. My guys — my crew — they kept me going.
What’s the Takeaway Here?
Shortly after that trip to Lowe’s, when I was discussing this incident with my brother, one of my laborers came to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you that it’s really nice working for someone like you. You don’t just tell us what to do, you get in there and work as hard as we do, shoulder to shoulder. I didn’t know a woman could work like that.”
I’ve carried those words with me since that day. The good of it and the bad of it. Really, those words are everything that’s right and wrong about the construction industry for women.
Maybe it’s simply that the men of the trades don’t realize how capable women are, so they pass them over for opportunities that they’d readily provide for their men. Maybe it’s simply a matter of exposing more men to women in their fields, showing them that the ladies can work as hard as any of them.
But, on the other hand, the fact that it even has to be said is disappointing. There’s nothing biological that means a woman is less than a man in the same weight class. You’ve probably worked with little guys and skinny guys and short guys over the years. Did you ever once think, “There’s no way this short guy can hang siding, he’s just too weak for the job”?
Of course not. Everybody knows the little guys are scrappers, unfortunately, many people still believe that a woman of roughly the same size is just too weak and unable to do the job.
Cure the Sickness in the Industry: Hire Women, Improve Safety
Women are just as capable as your men. They’re waiting in droves for chances to learn vital skills like those developed in the trades. But until they’re given a chance, a place to enter the industry safely, you’re going to continue to watch things get harder and harder for the men who remain.
Only three percent of the people employed in the construction industry are women. About half of the population is female. There’s a huge untapped opportunity here, if only men could get over themselves and take advantage of it and supervisors and foremen enforce zero tolerance for harassment of every sort.