February 1, 2023 3:45 pm

Women still climbing barriers to break into construction industry

There are more women working in construction in the U.S. than ever but remain starkly underrepresented in Wisconsin construction labor and apprenticeships, according to state data and local reports. Industry insiders and advocates said there must be an aggressive effort to bring more women into the labor pool as job openings and high demand meet in the Milwaukee area.

In the Milwaukee metro area, the growth of women in the workforce pipeline has been almost stagnant for the past two decades: Women made up 3% of active apprentices in 2000, now they make up 3.3% of apprentices, a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum showed.

Women made up 9.2% of Wisconsin’s construction industry workers in 2022 while men made up 90.8%, data from the Department of Workforce Development showed. The gap grew clearer compared to the overall workforce, where women made up 47.8% and men made up 52.2% of all Wisconsin workers last year.

In the Milwaukee-metro area, the growth of women in the workforce pipeline has been almost stagnant for the past two decades: Women made up 3% of active apprentices in 2000, now they make up 3.3% of apprentices, a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum showed.

(Chart courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Nationally, women made up 14% of construction industry employees in December of 2022, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. That’s significant growth compared to 10 years ago, or 9.5% in 2009, but advocates said growth has been slow overall. Women were still “substantially underrepresented,” in construction compared to other job sectors, a BLS report said.

Female workers rose in the early 2000s before falling after the 2007-08 financial crisis, BLS data showed. They reached another peak in January 2020 before being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and following lockdowns. That number was more than 1.1 million in December, but there are still hurdles ahead for women looking to enter both office and labor positions in construction.

There’s a growing pool of evidence the U.S. workforce will diversify as more people of color help power the nation’s economy and workers over 55 are more prevalent than 40 years ago. Of those in the record-breaking pool of women in construction, Hispanic women in the industry grew 117% in the past six years and overtook shares of white women in construction.

Experts say growing women in construction needs an ‘aggressive effort’ 

Construction industry insiders, trade unions and advocates said businesses would not only have to expand their recruitment and retention efforts, but also change the mindset around women becoming more present in the male-dominated industry, whether in the office or at job sites.

“In the unionized trades, we know women can hold their own and are key to expanding our talent pipeline,” Wisconsin Building Trades Council Executive Director Emily Pritzkow said. “Our careers are a natural fit for anyone looking for outstanding pay, job security and personal growth. But increasing the number of women across our crafts means not just recruitment but normalizing their presence on every work site.

“From our point of view, growing the share of women in construction requires an aggressive effort, both by removing barriers within the industry as a whole and by continuing to expand work with our partner organization, EmpowHER,” Pritzkow added.

Childcare, exposure to opportunities and changing the construction culture 

A construction career can offer ample wages and job security for women, or anyone who wants to start a family, but parents find it difficult to find adequate childcare before they clock into a job site in the early hours. Women are still usually the primary caretakers for children in the U.S., so finding daycares that open early and close late can be a challenge for mothers that affects them disproportionately.

“Trades are slowly implementing maternity leave benefits, but up until recent there hasn’t been any,” said Kilah Engelke, a former mason and highway laborer who is now the business agent with the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association Local 599. Engelke is also the business agent for EmpowHER, a support group for women in different building trades across the state. Support for women who choose to have a family and help them grow could make it feasible for them to bear children and work in construction, she said.

“Childcare is another big deal as tradespeople. Even as a first-year apprentice, we might make too much money to qualify for assistance,” Engelke said. “Childcare is a huge cost for families and our ability to make money depends on our ability to be on the job site at certain times of the day. Your typical construction worker is usually on the job site before a daycare opens.” Being able to find an affordable and available daycare, especially during the pandemic, proved a challenge for both men and women, she added.

In 2021, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found half of 2,636 survey respondents working in construction trades said finding childcare that covers construction hours can be difficult.

Because of the demand of the job, some trades can have long shifts and unpredictable hours, which makes caring for kids before or after work tricky. Some women might find certain trades, like electricians, easier to access because their hours are typically set, Engelke said.

Another barrier for women in construction is the lack of visibility to girls and young women in middle and high school for career trades, vice president of Union Grove-based Kurk Concrete Amanda Kurt said. “Middle school females, for example, may not know about the trades,” while they are deciding what they want to do in life, she said.

“The construction industry is working to overcome cultural concern, but hasn’t done it yet,” Kurt said. “The industry hasn’t done a good job of reaching out to women and showing them careers exist.”

Kurt is a member of the National Association of Women in Construction’s Milwaukee chapter, which offers Camp NAWIC, a summer program that shows girls who are interested in construction what a job site is like.

Because metro Milwaukee is facing its tightest construction labor market in at least 20 years and because Black and women workers are still highly underrepresented, the Wisconsin Policy Forum report urged employers to take extra steps to bridge the gap as they try to build more large-scale projects.

“These issues have long been acknowledged, and efforts have been made to address them, but industry and local leaders may want to undertake additional steps,” the report said. “This is particularly relevant given the high demand for workers in general and the considerable number of projects (e.g. the convention center expansion) with targeted hiring goals.”

As an older, predominately white trades workforce begins to age out, employers will have to think about turning to other demographics and backgrounds to fill in the gap, advocates and experts agreed. While the construction industry may be slow to change, some contractors see expanding their hiring efforts as a sink-or-swim situation.

Meanwhile, several organizations across the country have launched pilot programs to relieve childcare burdens for construction workers: in Massachusetts, Care That Works connects union-represented parents to state-licensed care providers and covers overtime for childcare workers through a network of investments from unions, contractors and the city of Boston.

The Labor Community Service Agency in Portland, Oregon, gave support to women entering pre-apprenticeship programs who had some financial security but were unable to afford childcare services to let them train in the meantime. Biloxi, Mississippi-based Moore Community House offers case management and childcare funding in its women in construction programs.

“Construction in general is beginning to realize they need parents as workers and to let them be parents,” Kurt said. “The shift in construction will continue to be positive, but I don’t think it’s a choice. We’ll have to move forward, or we’ll crumble.”