Rachel Fulford is the associate editor of Construction Business Owner magazine.
One Canadian contractor's experience working with & recruiting females in the skilled trades
Robyn’e Garton is a busy woman, and she didn’t get that way by accident. She’s worked with high levels of integrity and work ethic in construction, renovation, property management and real estate in Alberta, Canada, for over 26 years, earning her a coveted spot on a list of top ten property managers in Canada in 2005. Each position required her to work with project managers on bids and inspections during on-site meetings. “During my visits, construction projects were happening all around me, and I started thinking to myself, ‘There’s more to my life than this [property management],’” Garton said. She realized she’d been working in construction management most of her life—just not officially.
So, in 2011, she started her own company—Roof Surgeons—a roof contracting company that also offers property management and contractor mediation services, serving St. Albert, Edmonton and the surrounding area. The company began exceeding her expectations in no time, but there was only one problem: She was the only woman there. And that didn’t sit well with Garton. It wasn’t unusual for a contracting company to hire only men, but it didn’t seem right. “I researched whether there were other women doing it [construction] and didn’t really see any except [chief executive offiers] CEOs in architecture firms who were hiring men,” said Garton.
There were barely any women in the trades in Canada, and it didn’t take much research to figure out why. Women who did trade work for a living were the first to bear the brunt of layoffs, and were paid up to $5.00 less per hour than men for completing the same job. Even female electricians under the union’s umbrella (the safest place for a woman to be in Canada’s skilled labor force) were constantly at risk for being let go, especially since Canada doesn’t require employers to provide employees they fire with a reason.
Most women never even thought of skilled labor as a career option. And many who dreamed of such a career, didn’t dare go after one, because it seemed like a setup for failure. Those who were brave enough to try often ended up unemployed. “I wanted something different,” Garton said. So she set out to change it.
In 2012, she began recruiting for her second business, a roofing and construction company, also based in Alberta, and focused on empowering women. The empowerment part came in hiring only women and giving them job security within a rewarding career—the one they’d been longing for but certainly never expected. And so, Pink Belts Roofing & Construction (a name given for the pink tool belts the workers wear) was born.
Recruitment wasn’t necessary, but Garton still spoke at Girl Guides (the Canadian version of Girl Scouts) meetings, high schools, trade schools and colleges, explaining to girls and women that they could have a career in skilled labor, that they didn’t have to be “teachers or nurses or stay-at-home moms” if they didn’t want to be; those were not their only options. “People were listening, and they were excited,” she said.
The applicants came in droves, unable to believe the opportunity they were being given, but jumping on board before it proved too good to be true. “It was simple to get employees. I wasn’t expecting that," Garton said. “We grew over 700 percent in the first 3 years.” However, business wasn’t kicked off without a hitch. Though no businesses are, the tough time the girls endured in the beginning was shocking after a seamless employment initiative.
Garton recalled, “When we first started working, people would park and take pictures, unable to believe what they were seeing—a team of all females doing construction work.” But onlookers and unconsented photo ops weren’t the worst of their experiences. Garton and the team received a lot of negative attention—even hate mail. Their work trucks were vandalized. When asked why she thought this happened, Garton said, “Daring to be different can bring a lot of negativity. Some were jealous. ‘Who did I think I was?’ I’m sure other business owners wondered.”
Afraid that what she was doing would make their business models look both inefficient and immoral, Garton was told outright by competitors, “You will make it harder to stay in this industry because of your mouth. You are putting the rest of us at a disadvantage.” “Her mouth,” she said, referred to her willingness to speak out against the inequality and mistreatment women were experiencing, not only in the trades, but in the workforce in general. “My mouth has always been bigger than my body. I call a spade a spade. I’m not afraid to challenge corporations to change their rules and regulations," Garton said.
The people not telling her to shut up? Her employees—even the men at Roof Surgeons, who according to Garton, enjoy when they get to help the Pink Belt women with tasks because they like how they are treated on jobsites run by women. Pink Belts stood behind their audacious leader. “It will get better worse before it gets better, but pioneer with me anyway,” she would tell them. And pioneer they did. Today, they’re stronger than ever, despite those who hoped for, argued for, and bet on their failure due to the extreme weather and back-breaking nature of the work.
Proving their staying power has made them a force to be reckoned with. The company’s website touts, “Pink Belts… is uniquely designed to serve Alberta with high standards and an excellent reputation in the industry," Garton said. "Not only do you get high quality roofing products, materials and exceptional customer service delivered on time, every time, you also get competitive prices and results that are guaranteed, both in materials and workmanship.” And their continual growth attests to the truth of that statement.
Where to next for Garton? “The United States is seeing a push to include women in the trades now, and I want a piece of that pie,” Garton said. One statistic she credits with solidifying her belief is this: at the 2017 Women Build Nations Conference, hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CIW) and North America’s Building Trades Union, it was announced that conference had a current attendance growth rate of 115 percent (now at 700 percent).
Specifically, Garton is interested in opening companies in the Hurricane Alley cities: Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa. Generally, she says, a terrible hurricane guarantees construction companies in the surrounding area about 10 years of work. It’s hard to deny the genius in this location strategy. Houston is first on her list. “Then, it’s on to the other Hurricane Alley cities,” she said. Garton will be hosting conferences in Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, South Carolina (city to be confirmed), and Tampa in 2019, with dates to be announced in the new year.
Looking ahead, when asked where she sees herself in the future, without hesitation, she said, “I’m 48. I want to retire at 55. Along the way, some girl—probably in her mid-20s—will buy me out. And that’s what I’ve wanted all along. I’d still want to be a mentor and have input, though. Who knows what I’ll do next. I’ll always be an entrepreneur. But first, I want to witness a disaster in person and have women helping me fix it. We are a storm of our own.”