Exploring the solution to the industry's labor shortage problems

In September 2016, Fortune magazine quoted a National Association of Homebuilders estimate that there are 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the United States. And in October 2016, the Association of General Contractors (AGC) said contractors are “still reporting difficulty” filling jobs, with AGC’s leadership urging congress to push through a bill that would funnel more students into construction training.

Simply put: despite the news of thousands of jobs added nationally, construction is still suffering from a severe worker shortage.

At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year that of the 9.9 million construction employees in the U.S., only 929,000 were women—a little over 9 percent.

When you Google “women in construction,” you find a few news stories and a couple of links to organizations that are trying to address the gap. But search for “efforts to bring more women into construction industry,” and 15 of the first 20 results are either books or United Kingdom-based organizations or news sources.

Facing an industrywide labor shortage similar to ours, England seems more concerned about bringing women into construction than we are.


Informing Women & Getting Them Hired

Why wouldn’t contractors leave no stone unturned when it comes to replenishing their workforces, especially when the jobs are there, waiting to be won? Of course, there is the age-old stereotype that women aren’t up to the physical challenge of hard labor—though this can obviously be tested candidate by candidate prior to hiring.

But if you believe the AGC press secretary’s statement to the Associated Press in 2014, most AGC members across the country are willing to hire anyone qualified for the position—he says it is just that not enough women are interested, at least not yet.

Some local and regional organizations—including the New York City-based Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), as well as Southern California’s Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER)—have been trying to address this issue.

For almost 40 years, NEW has helped prepare women for—and place them in—positions in the construction, transportation, energy and facilities maintenance industries. NEW has arrangements with a handful of unions to direct pre-prepped women into their multiyear apprenticeships with starting wages of $17/hour, benefits and room for growth (NEW graduates must have high school diplomas or GEDs and be able to carry 50 pounds). NEW’s member unions commitment to placing its “graduates” in 10 percent of their open slots has resulted in jobs for around 2,500 women.

Unions, which have been declining for decades, are also seeking to increase female membership with improved awareness. Women currently only represent about 3 percent of union workers nationwide. Local 441 in Orange County, California, has attempted to grow its ranks by working with WINTER, which has been pairing up low-income women seeking job training (and better wages than the jobs they have traditionally filled) with employers for 20 years.

Mental Toughness a Must

Is it just a lack of awareness about these types of jobs and what they require that accounts for construction’s failure to draw throngs of female applicants? Or is it wariness about working in such a historically male-dominated field, and a fear of maltreatment on the job?

Probably both. According to the National Women’s Law Center, there is still pervasive denigration and harassment of women at worksites by their male supervisors and coworkers, and they have said the construction industry needs to shape up if it wants to draw more heavily from the other 50 percent of the population.

The New York-based NEW includes in part of its training module a role-playing exercise to help women distinguish between actionable harassment and simply annoying behavior that will have to be ignored in order to stay in the field and get ahead.

Worth the Challenges

The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), the “grandmother” of all organizations supporting women in the construction industry, has regional chapters and provides training, education and more. It also offers its own scholarship program, maintains a job board and posts a national open apprenticeship list.

One fact that NAWIC is trying to spread via its website: in 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women construction workers earn an average of 93.4 cents to every dollar that men earn in construction, versus 82.1 cents to the dollar that men earn across other fields. In other words, the gender pay gap is smaller in construction than in most other fields.

And if you read the news stories from the past year about women in construction, you see quote upon quote from business owners saying that their female employees were at least as hardworking and productive as their male counterparts.

If enough people share these facts about the smaller wage gap and higher pay rates than clerical or healthcare fields, surely more women will consider finding a job behind the bulldozer rather than the front desk. This could be a huge help in staffing the next construction boom.