Women Work: Why gender diversity is good for the construction industry

While the U.S. has made strides in promoting workplace equality for women, we still have a long way to go. After all, it was only a little more than a year ago that women were allowed to apply for all military jobs, including ground combat forces, and certain industries – like electrical and general contracting – still seriously suffer from a gender gap.

In fact, only about 9 percent of construction workers are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is unacceptable if companies are going to be successful in the years ahead. Our industry has a major perception issue, and it’s going to require all of us making incremental steps together to effect real change.

Professional perception

Perception is a tough nut to crack. If you ask most people to describe a typical construction worker, you’ll get a lot of descriptions of a middle-aged man, usually white, wearing a hard hat and a toolbelt. While there’s certainly valid reasons for the stereotype, that kind of pervasive perception is even affecting future generations.

The Associated Schools of Construction conducted a study recently, asking children ages 7 to 12 about their career aspirations. Nearly half of the kids believed construction work was only for men, and only two kids (both boys) out of the group of 104 aspired to enter the construction field.

Kirstyn Quandt elaborates on this need for a perception change among children in The Cornerstone:

“When individuals, young and old, are able to forge a personal connection and have an ‘if they can, I can’ moment of brilliance, something changes. And that change may be enough to begin overcoming our industry’s workforce shortage.”

Help wanted

This effort to include more women in our field isn’t just the right thing to do either. As Quandt alludes to, the industry is facing a major lack of skilled labor, which is only expected to grow over the next decade. Our workforces are aging and the skilled talent pool is shrinking, all while the industry as a whole is expected to jump 21.4 percent by 2022. It’s a similar quandary faced by the health care industry: We simply need more help!

Many in the residential construction industry are finding that assistance by hiring more women, who are helping them better connect with customers (many of whom are female and feel more comfortable working with another woman).

Tom Miller, president of Tom Miller Remodeling, has two women on his crew of five, and he tells Replacement Contractor that he’s seen the benefit:

“They are just working out great. I’ve been a contractor for 31 years and have no complaints about the women who have worked for me. If you’re not hiring women for labor, you’re missing an excellent opportunity.”

As unemployment continues to shrink and demand continues to rise, those contractors who can expand their workforce to include more skilled women will be poised to better compete in the years ahead.

Steps in the right direction

The good news is that while the needle is moving slowly, it’s at least moving in the right direction. And we’re now seeing more women on crews and in ownership roles. In fact, Electrical Contractor magazine reports that even though only 9.5 percent of NECA members are women-owned businesses, that’s triple the amount from 20 years ago.

Here at IEC, we’re always striving to create an environment that provides equal opportunities for all people, regardless of gender. We recently hired a female journeyman who’s doing a fantastic job, and Shelley, one of our foremen, is an example of a successful woman in a leadership role.

I know we have a long way to go, and women still face many challenges entering this male-dominated world. But by encouraging a more equal opportunity for all, our industry will only become stronger and more attractive to the next generation of laborers—the men and women literally responsible for building the future for all of us.

Nilson Goes serves as the chief operations officer and general manager at IEC, an electrical and general contractor serving both commercial and government clients. How do you encourage diversity on your crews? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or tweet to @IEC_KC.