The construction industry is entrenched in a significant labor shortage, with nearly 400,000 job openings available for construction workers in June of 2023. While there are many reasons for this labor shortage – an aging workforce, a lack of a reliable pipeline for trades workers, and a heavy focus on academic routes for American students – one largely untapped force to backfill this demand is women.
In an era where gender norms are being redefined and traditional career paths reevaluated, the construction industry stands as a significant battleground for gender equality and empowerment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up less than 11% of the construction workforce. Challenges such as gender bias, a lack of role models or exposure to the work all make accessibility for women difficult. However, women in trades like excavation, electrical, and plumbing are breaking barriers and contributing significantly to the workforce. These industries offer women opportunities for high-paying, skilled jobs with the potential for growth and advancement.
Encouragingly, there’s a growing recognition of the value of diversity in these fields, leading to more inclusive policies and practices. Mentorship programs, supportive networks, and education initiatives are increasingly available; helping more women enter and thrive in these vital sectors. The presence of women in trades not only diversifies the workforce but also brings unique perspectives and skills, essential for the industry’s evolution and success.
This week, we’re taking some time to discuss what it’s like to be a woman in the trades with two who are in it day after day. Lana and Rebecca are both employed by a local excavation company completing work at one of Perlo’s construction sites. A rarity to see many women in the trades, we spent some time getting to know Lana and Rebecca, their work, and what they’ve experienced in their careers.
Challenges and Resilience:
Rebecca began her career at a young age while Lana entered excavation later in life after careers ranging from horse care to general labor.
Lana: “I started after my son was born. I used to manage a horse barn and I think that’s why I was used to being outside in the elements. There was always work to be done, no matter the weather, and that’s true for this job, too.”
Rebecca: “I started when I was 19. My grandpa was an excavator, and I knew that school wasn’t for me after high school.”
Their journeys highlight a common theme: resilience. In an industry where sexism is prevalent and women are often underestimated, they’ve had to work tirelessly to prove their capabilities. Earning respect, they agree, doesn’t come easy; it’s a constant uphill battle against entrenched biases.
Rebecca: “The guys don’t think we know anything and do treat us differently. I wish they would just treat us like the rest of the guys. We’re out here and working just as hard as anyone else, but it feels like we have to work ten times harder to prove ourselves. It’s hard to earn the respect.”
Lana: “I end up earning the laborer’s respect because I outwork them.”
Opportunities and Growth:
Despite the hurdles, Lana and Rebecca find their work deeply rewarding. They take pride in the physicality of their jobs and the tangible results of their labor. As the only women on many job sites, they’ve formed a unique bond; supporting and understanding each other’s struggles in a way that only fellow women in the trades can.
Rebecca: “This job is rewarding. It’s nice to drive around town and see where I’ve worked and what I’ve built. It pays decently. My favorite worker is Lana. We think and brainstorm together and get along really well. She’s works as hard as anyone and knows just as much.”
Lana: “This is the only thing I want to do. I love hard, outside, physical work. I wish I would have started earlier. I kind of got a late start into it. When your bosses are family oriented, they understand that family comes first. I’m a single mom and this is a great job for families. I don’t work weekends and the shifts are generally 7am – 3pm, so it works fairly well for families.”
Navigating the male-dominated environment of construction has its peculiarities. Lana and Rebecca have observed that while their co-workers can be protective and supportive, there’s also a tendency for some to view women as competition or underestimate their skills. However, they’ve also noticed a gradual shift with newer generations being more accepting of women in the field.
Lana: “The newer generations are a lot more open to women on jobsites than the older generations. We have to work really hard to get their respect. It’s getting them nowhere. In the long run, we keep doing what we’re doing, and try hard.”
Rebecca: “You need to have a thick skin. There’s yelling and screaming onsite, but they treat everyone the same in that regard. You need to be tough. I do think it’s hard to get a job if you’re not known. They want to see your work ethic. It’s hard to find good workers, so if you show up and work hard each day, you’ll gradually be accepted.”
The Joy of Labor:
Both women express a deep love for their work. They enjoy the outdoors, the challenge, and the independence their roles offer. Their enthusiasm for construction is a reminder of the fulfillment that comes from pursuing a passion, regardless of societal expectations.
Lana: “I’m just trying to constantly learn, especially since excavation is so new to me. You’re kind of your own boss – you work pretty independently some of the time. Our boss will guide us and give us tasks but then it’s up to us to execute on it. That kind of environment is nice to work in.”
Rebecca: “Not many want to get dirty or be out in the cold and the weather. Not a lot of people are willing to do it. It’s a lot of work. I’m really happy I’m making a career out of this though. I enjoy it a lot, even though there are hard days. You’re never done learning; you’re always getting better and learning more.”
Advice for Aspiring Women in Construction:
For women considering a career in construction, Lana and Rebecca’s message is clear: go for it. They stress the importance of having a thick skin, being willing to learn, and not being afraid to get your hands dirty. The industry needs more women, and as Lana and Rebecca have shown, women have much to offer and gain from these trades.
“If you don’t want to, don’t do it. It’s a lot of work. Women have got to want to do these jobs. You’ll know pretty quickly if you like it or not.”
“If women are thinking about it – do it. You’re just as good as men. All the tasks we have to do, we can do them just like the men. Sometimes they’re physically stronger but that’s it. The guys tell me women are more detail oriented. We tend to make things look good and be clean and tidy. I’ve heard that many times over. If you like the outdoors and are ready to work hard, it’s totally doable.”
Lana and Rebecca’s stories are more than just personal triumphs; they’re a beacon for other women considering a path less traveled. Their experiences in construction demonstrate that with resilience, hard work, and mutual support, women can not only succeed but also thrive in any field they choose.
There are many resources available to women interested in the construction trades. Check out this article we previously published for additional information. We hope to see you following passion soon!