While it’s common to see women toting tool belts and sledgehammers on HGTV home renovation shows, the number of women actually employed in the construction industry is far from equitable.
The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) estimates that women make up only 9.1 percent of the construction industry workforce, according to a 2018 article in the Engineering News-Record. Those numbers, however, have been growing steadily. With the construction industry facing a worker shortage, trying to get more women involved seems like a natural next step.
Kelly Schiedermayer, an estimator for Keller Inc., used to work in the Kaukauna company’s carpentry division. She says construction jobs aren’t often promoted to females even though they are something many would enjoy doing.
“Women are obsessed with HGTV and Pinterest and often re-create the projects they see in their own way. So many women are capable of doing the work,” she says. “I just don’t think they connect the skills they have learned through Pinterest or HGTV as working in construction.”
To get more men and women into the construction trades, Schiedermayer says it’s important to show students that “there isn’t a mold you need to fit into. It’s drive, determination, willpower and a can-do attitude.”
Keller offers about 100 office positions in a range of areas from accounting and expediting to marketing and operations. Women fill about a quarter of those positions, says Katie Mangin, the company’s director of marketing. But when it comes to working in the field, it’s much more challenging to find female employees.
While the industry itself is male dominated, Mangin says “that doesn’t mean you can’t be respected by your male counterparts.”
When she worked in the field, Schiedermayer primarily worked on rough and finish carpentry.
“My typical day would include demo work, reading blueprints, laying out walls, framing walls, hanging doors and trim work,” she says. “After a few years in the field, I started noticing my fellow co-workers who had been in the field for 20 or more years and how the job took a toll on their bodies. When a job opening for an estimator was available, I knew it was an opportunity I wanted to pursue.”
Linda Nila, who will retire later this year from her role as chief financial officer at The Boldt Co. in Appleton, has worked in construction for nearly her entire 40-year career. Nila admits it’s rare to find women in a C-level position in the industry. She became interested in construction while working for a company that manufactured products for the industry.
“It was kind of a natural step,” she says. “The industry is always fast paced, always changing; I’ve never been bored in this industry.”
When Nila came to Boldt, she was the only woman on the executive team. “It was very well received, but I always think that people will treat you with respect when you demonstrate to them you know what you’re doing,” she says. “You have to not be intimidated.”
Ready to recruit
Apprenticeships and internship programs are one way to draw women into the industry. About four years ago, UA Local 400, which has about 2,300 members in 18 Northeast Wisconsin counties, began a youth apprenticeship program with high school juniors and seniors. A youth apprenticeship coordinator works with contractors to find jobs for both male and female students in plumbing, pipefitting, HVACR and fabrication programs, says UA Business Manager Jeff Knaus. He adds that 15 contractors participate.
Students can take night school classes in areas such as welding, rigging and soldering at the training center and attend union meetings to get “a whole feel for the industry,” says Knaus, adding that just one of the program’s current 25 students is female.
The UA also has female members participate in career fairs to show girls “with hands-on training what a plumber or steamfitter would do” and to let those interested in field work know that “it’s not just dirty, grungy, hot or cold work,” Knaus says.
“(All construction companies) want to have more women in their trades, but we all seem to struggle with getting them in. I don’t know if it’s messaging or the work itself,” he says.
Mangin agrees messaging and reaching the girls where they are can be helpful in attracting them to the field. “Your next generation of graduates is more social media savvy,” she says.
It’s important to get the story of the industry out there, Mangin continues.
“It’s about co-workers, it’s about work ethic, having that drive to work better — that’s not a male or female attitude,” she says. As a woman, “it’s your job to show that we belong in the construction industry and we have a voice.”
Filling a void
Fond du Lac program trains future construction workers
Fond du Lac High School’s Architecture Construction Engineering (ACE) Academy has one simple but challenging goal: Get more high school students interested in pursuing careers in the construction industry and trades.
Across the construction industry, businesses and trades need many workers. The Fond du Lac High School staff and school district administration worked with area technical colleges and more than 38 industries and businesses to put the center together. Kimberly High School also has its own ACE Academy.
Supported by the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, the program provides students with the coursework they need to pursue a job in the construction field after graduation. Students also can earn postsecondary credits through the program, which includes job shadowing and service-learning opportunities.
ACE Academy students use the same equipment and tools construction crews use in the workplace.
Justin Smith of C.D. Smith Construction says the program’s key objective is to promote, develop and build the trades careers and to foster a relationship between the school, parents and the construction industry.
“We are excited to embark on this collaboration with educators realizing that it will not only provide us with future workers, it will build a stronger economy in the Fond du Lac area,” he says.
Expanding options: Northeast Wisconsin residents seeking a bachelor’s degree in construction and trades management can now attain one closer to home.
Concordia University Wisconsin and Fox Valley Technical College have partnered to offer a bachelor’s degree in construction and trades management for FVTC students who have completed an associate degree in construction management technology. The classes will be offered at the CUW Appleton Center, 4351 W. College Ave.
“This is all about the students,” said FVTC President Susan May. “Through this partnership with Concordia, our students will be prepared with a powerful combination of skill sets and experiences to be valuable and marketable in construction, which is a vitally important sector to this region.”
— By MaryBeth Matzek