Increasing Efforts to Bring More Cleveland Women Into Construction Careers

Kim Palmer, Crain's

In late October, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced at the Tradeswomen Build Nations conference in Las Vegas that the Biden administration was launching Million Women in Construction, an initiative to recruit and employ 1 million more women in the construction trades, doubling current numbers, over the next decade.

That aggressive goal is needed, as more than $1 trillion in unprecedented federal infrastructure spending, coupled with a shortage of trained tradespeople, presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase the paltry 11% female representation across the construction industry, Raimondo said.

Attracting more women into a career in the building trades will necessitate those women already working in the construction industry to help dispel the stereotypes and stigmas associated with construction work, said David Wondolowski, Cleveland Building and Construction Trades union executive secretary.

"The most effective way to recruit women into the trades is to have women who have been doing it explain the benefits and provide mentorship," Wondolowski said. "It is those women who have the ability to articulate the advantages of being in the building trades and make other women feel that they can be part of this industry."

In Cleveland, at least two women are doing just that.

A much-needed sounding board

In 2014, Doreen Cannon, a recently retired union plumber with nearly three decades of experience under her belt, founded Cleveland Tradeswomen, a recruiting, mentoring and support group for women in the trades.

"When I got into the industry, 25 years ago, women made up just about 2% of all trade workers," Cannon said. Since then, the number of women working directly in the trades — plumbing, electrical and masonry — is up to nearly 4%, which, despite being an increase, does not come close to representing the number of women participating in the overall workforce.

The Cleveland Tradeswomen committee, Cannon said, provides a much-needed sounding board for issues that arise for women working in such a male-dominated field. "We support each other. We mentor each other," Cannon said. "The women who have been in the business for a long time we pair up with new apprentices to provide a bit of a sounding board for concerns."

Construction trade work is a natural fit for women, Cannon argues, because it requires the critical skills women tend to excel at, such as multitasking, problem-solving and collaboration.

"But when you drive by a construction site, you don't see a lot of women," Cannon said. That lack of representation makes it harder to recruit other women, who, Cannon points out, might find it overwhelming to be the only woman on a job.

The paucity of female workers on job sites often means there are no bathrooms for women, safety equipment is not available in their size, and Cannon has heard stories of female apprentices relegated to menial, non-skilled tasks rather than given opportunities to learn new skills.

"I hear all the time from tradeswomen that they'll be on a job, get to know the crew, and just when everybody realizes they can do the work, the job's over and they have to move to a new job with a different crew where they have to prove themselves all over again," Cannon said.

The tradeswomen group makes foremen aware of issues that face women, while also working to make the industry a better place for women by simply trying to increase the number of female workers in all parts of the industry.

"What I always say, when I'm asked, 'What can we do to change the perception of the construction industry, and make it more attractive for women?,' is that one answer is to just bring in more women who will tell you what you need to get rid of and what is not working for them on these sites," Cannon said.

With that in mind, the tradeswomen group actively recruits women looking for a career pivot or students who don't think a four-year college degree is for them.

Jobs in the trades on average pay twice as much as minimum-wage jobs in hospitality or retail and are some of the highest-paying jobs women can get without a college degree. Cannon adds that union construction jobs provide guaranteed wage parity regardless of gender, because all jobs are bound by the specifics of long-term contracts.

"We always talk about these apprenticeship programs as the other four-year degree, because you go to school but in the end there is no debt," Cannon said. "Where else can you go and get a job and know what you're going to be making in four and five years and have guaranteed annual pay raises?"

Providing support and guidance

As more women and younger generations are being recruited to join the construction industry, studies like Deloitte's 2022 Gen Z and millennial survey released this August show that 23% of respondents from both generations said that a diverse and positive workplace culture are top reasons they chose to work for their current organization.

"Our industry is definitely being encouraged to reevaluate and reconsider the future of construction from a diversity and inclusion standpoint," said Keeley Williams, project engineer at Gilbane Building Co. "There is a pivot to bringing in more women into the field, and our group wants to make sure that it is a positive place for women and that we are considered valued members in our industry."

Williams, a recent architectural engineering graduate from the University of Cincinnati, started empoWer, Gilbane's first employee resource group focused on support, leadership and career development for women in the Cleveland office.

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, like Gilbane's empoWer are made up of specific, often underrepresented groups of workers within a company. The groups, which include one focused on younger workers, women, veterans, LGBTQ employees and employees of color, provide professional and social support and guidance from peers on career and personal development within Gilbane and in the construction industry.

Gilbane, which is headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island, has 45 office locations around the world, including in downtown Cleveland. It currently has about one-third of its 3,000 employees participating in one or more diversity ERGs, which, according to a report by the company, are a major part of a plan to increase racial and gender diversity at the company by 50% from 2020 to 2030.

EmpoWer is similar to the union's tradeswomen group but includes the 11% of female employees that work across the construction industry, including architects, engineers, managers and administrators.

Williams, who decided to work in the construction field after a stint as an intern at Gilbane, where she was mentored by another female employee, stresses that one of the most critical benefits empoWer provides is simply "celebrating women in construction with words of encouragement."

Highlighting prominent female leaders in the field, she said, is important because it fosters an environment where women are comfortable coming to one another to talk about any problems they're facing.

"I was intimidated as a woman coming into construction. And if it were not for people supporting me and the mentorship at Gilbane, I don't think I would have even looked at the industry for a career at all," said Williams, who added that with the help of mentors she has always felt "respected and appreciated and valued."

The growth in the number of projects, and the number of women on those construction projects, is helping change perceptions and is making the construction industry "extremely attractive for women, both in management as well as in the trades," Williams said.

Now, when she goes out to schools on recruiting events, Williams said about 50% of the class looking to learn about the industry is made up of female students.

"There is a lot of growth in the market here in Cleveland, and there is a lot of work to go around," she said.