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Updated: October 14, 2019 Focus: Construction

As industry faces workforce shortage, more women embracing construction trades

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Tatiana Southwick, 38, is a finishing trades apprentice instructor for District Council 11 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Middletown, a position rarely, if ever, held by a woman.

Somer Hicks has held various jobs over the years, including as a bartender and painter, but her latest in the construction industry has been the most satisfying, she said.

“I love it,’’ said Hicks, 38, of the Terryville section of Plymouth, who started a year ago as a laborer — assisting carpenters, electricians and other building-tradespeople — after completing a state-funded pre-apprenticeship training.

“I love that it’s like going to the gym,’’ she said. “When you see what you’ve completed, you can look back and say, ‘I did that.’ ”

Hicks’ entry into the male-dominated construction industry is more common these days.

As the sector faces an aging workforce and tight labor market, big contracting firms, as well as smaller subcontractors and their suppliers, are being forced to diversify their hiring.

As a result, in recent years, private design, engineering and contracting firms, construction trade groups, labor unions and nonprofit workforce-development agencies have mounted a full-court press to identify and train more women for the industry.

In particular, employers and others involved in recruiting, training and supporting women in the sector point to a steady migration of females into posts that don’t involve field work, such as design and engineering; project management; accounting; and marketing.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows a higher percentage of women in Connecticut construction jobs. For example, women held 17.8 percent of the 61,647 construction jobs that existed in the state last year vs. occupying 17 percent of construction jobs in 2008 and 15.6 percent in 1998.

Yet, some observers say women, as well as ethnic minorities, remain underrepresented in Connecticut and U.S. building trades amid greater legal and social emphasis on fairness in hiring and training.

“I believe that as women become more aware of the opportunities that are there, the percentages are going to increase,’’ said Yolanda Rivera, who has spent the past 20 years filling Connecticut’s trades pipeline as director of construction-sector initiatives at Capital Workforce Partners (CWP) in Hartford.

Rhode Island’s Gilbane Building Co., a builder of public and private projects in Connecticut and the Northeast, says more women than ever are among its staff — and not just in the field. John Hawley, vice president in Gilbane’s Glastonbury office, said his company has extended its job recruiting to female college students in majors such as mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as accounting and marketing.

Women, says Amy R. Blackwood, executive director of the John J. Driscoll United Labor Agency (ULA) and community engagement director for the CT AFL-CIO, are a deep talent pool that could benefit the building-trades sector.

“You’ve got a retiring workforce and an untapped workforce that’s never had an opportunity,’’ Blackwood said.

In 2016, the CT State Building Trades, in concert with ULA, launched “Building Pathways CT,’’ to put women and men through seven weeks of pre-apprenticeship training to qualify them to work in construction. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have similar programs.

Participants, Blackwood said, spend eight hours daily in the classroom for training in certain trade skills, plus certifications in flagging, fire watch, CPR, among others.

Since Pathways’ launch, nearly nine of every 10 adults who completed the training program got a construction job, she said.

Hicks is one of those. The divorced mother of three held various past jobs, including 13 years as a bartender and 3½ years as a house painter. She briefly worked for a roofing installer and as a roadway “flagman.’’

“My best friend … heard about the [Pathways] program,’’ Hicks said. “She wanted to be a carpenter. We had planned to go through the union, but we didn’t know how to get our butts in the door.’’

Since Hicks landed in the Pathways program in 2018, she has worked as a laborer at three in-state jobs sites, including remediating a former General Electric industrial site in Bridgeport into ballfields.

Hicks’ base pay as an apprentice is $18 an hour, with an extra $2 to $3 hourly for every 1,000 hours worked, she said. But she looks forward to the day, four or five years from now when she has amassed 4,000 work hours to quality for a construction journeyperson’s pay of at least $38 an hour.

More work to be done

Architect Laura Cruickshank is UConn’s master planner, overseeing dozens of the college’s building projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars in her 16 years there, and even more in her 44-year career that included a stop as Yale’s architect.

Although UConn has stiff standards for female and minority participation in campus building projects, Cruickshank says she’s still dismayed at the relatively small number of women she encounters on UConn work sites. She says she makes it a point to stop and greet them.

“I’m always amazed women aren’t further along,’’ she said.

Early engagement with girls and young women while they’re still in school about professional- and skilled-labor options in construction and building trades would enhance their diversity, Cruickshank said.

More and consistent mentoring of women, as well as greater empathy for females in building trades who seek time away to bear children, would be bonuses, she said.

“These are all doable things,’’ Cruickshank said.

Meantime, despite their growing presence in a field predominated by males, female construction workers say they rarely, if ever, encounter hostile treatment or attitudes from their male counterparts.

Hicks says skills competency is the prime yardstick for garnering respect on the job site. She says her male co-workers have been helpful to her.

“I’ve got to say 99 percent of the guys have been absolutely wonderful,’’ she said.

In fact, worksite misogyny is the least of problems for AFL-CIO’s female trainees, Blackwood said.

“My women have problems because they’re dealing with systemic problems with poverty,’’ Blackwood said, such as access to adequate housing, transportation and social services.

Finishing journeyperson Tatiana Southwick met her glazier husband on a job site in 2014. They married a year later. Finishing work entails hanging sheetrock, then sealing and painting interior walls.

Born in New Jersey but with Puerto Rican roots, Southwick, 38, originally entered college with plans to become a veterinarian. But she later pivoted and took an office job to help care for her ailing mother.

In 2005, she spied a training program that CWP’s Rivera oversaw to prepare women and men for construction jobs. Southwick and two other women were in the co-ed class, but after seven weeks she was the only female to graduate.

“I didn’t know anything when I started in construction,’’ said Southwick, who has come a long way since then.

Today, she’s a finishing trades apprentice instructor for District Council 11 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Middletown, a position rarely, if ever, held by a woman.

Other outward signs of industry acceptance of women will appear as more females like Southwick become journeypeople and instructors, Rivera and Blackwood say, or turn up on job sites as architects, engineers and project superintendents.

Women bring special talents to construction, Southwick said.

“There’s an attention to detail that I feel women are a little sharper at,’’ she said.

Southwick, the mother of five daughters, one of whom graduated from a technical high school with a carpentry certification, said she would encourage them to consider a career in building trades.

“I tell them to come on down,’’ she said. “But I do warn them that construction isn’t for everyone, no matter the gender.’’

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