By Constance Brossa, Next Avenue
General contractor Sandy DeWeese knows what it’s like to operate in the male-dominated construction sector of what’s known as the “skilled trades.” Because of her gender-neutral name, some unsuspecting prospective clients would open the door when she arrived on site and say, ‘Oh, you’re a woman.’
“There was only one time in my career that somebody didn’t give me the job because I was a woman,” recalled DeWeese, who works in the Durham and Orange county area of North Carolina. The prospective client — a woman — “did not feel a woman would actually do what she wanted, which was a bathroom renovation.” So DeWeese, who’s now in her late 50s and has been a general contractor since 2007, did not get that job.
Fortunately for DeWeese, who’s long had a passion for home improvement, her mother and grandmother always supported her construction-related pursuits. In fact, DeWeese’s grandmother built furniture for the Bassett furniture company in Virginia.
A Shortage of Workers in the Skilled Trades
The definition of “skilled trades” is fluid, but jobs typically fall into five categories: agriculture, construction, manufacturing/industrial, service (chefs, hairdressers, nursing assistants and others) and transportation.
Even before the pandemic and the subsequent labor issues it produced, there’s been a focus on the longstanding shortage of workers in the construction and manufacturing/industrial sectors. According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “A majority (62%) of contractors report high difficulty finding skilled workers, up from 55% who said the same last quarter (and up 20 points year-over-year).”
For decades, men’s representation in the construction industry has dwarfed that of women because blue-collar work typically isn’t considered something women can do. Without equitable access to the industry, many women never enter the market, even if they are interested in doing so.
In 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women accounted for 8.6% of construction managers. Of those, 16.3% were Hispanic or Latino, 5% were Black and 1.7% were Asian. Just 3.8% of women were first-line supervisors and 4.5% were laborers.
To address the labor shortage, companies across the U.S. have ramped up workforce development programs (some new, others preexisting) to increase the number of workers – including women – in construction and other fields.
And nonprofits, such as Dykes With Drills (DWD) in California, are “focused on teaching, unlike the construction industry, which is focused on doing the job quickly, doing it well, minimizing costs and making a profit,” said founder Julie Peri.
DWD hosts skill-building workshops, retreats, volunteer events and meet-ups. Peri estimates DWD has trained 2,500 women since its inception in 2018.
More women, she noted, are realizing “there’s good money here (in construction), and they’re realizing it’s a job they can, in fact, do.” She added that “A lot of the women who come to our classes … might just become hobbyists.”
A ‘Different Vibe’ on All-Female Crews
One of them is Su Quek, a 50-something resident of San Francisco. Quek, director of product design for Care.com, spends her workdays building “virtual things like websites.”
“This time last year, I had not touched anything stronger than drills to hang photos,” she recalled.
In spring 2021, while in lockdown during the resurging Covid-19 pandemic, she came across an ad for a DWD tiny-house finishing project.
Quek eventually joined the all-female crew of newbies installing doors, windows and siding. It took 14 work sessions, but the house was finally finished last summer.
“I have since worked on maybe five tiny houses and one of them was a metal house, so I learned how to cut metal,” Quek said.
One thing Quek has noticed is the difference in working on all-female crews versus mixed (male and female) crews. There’s a “different vibe,” she said, and the men are less supportive.
“When the guys are around, you gotta ‘man up.’ When it’s predominantly women, it’s more supportive,” said Quek.
Peri can relate to Quek’s experience. “When I work with groups of women, we always pair up when we carry things. We’re not trying to hurt ourselves. Working with men in the field, they’re trying to make as few trips as possible. And I feel like I’m just wasting their time because I need to ask them for help to carry it.”
More Training Programs Mean More Opportunities
At She Built This City, a nonprofit based in Charlotte, N.C., it’s all about women. After just three years in existence, the organization introduced a free plumbing pre-apprenticeship plumbing program in 2021. Eight women, one of whom was in her 40s, graduated from the 15-week program in October. In February, a free pre-apprenticeship electrician training overview program launched and at least two of the participants are in their 40s.
“We do have some level of certification, but they won’t be a licensed journeywoman or electrician,” said LaToya Faustin, the nonprofit’s executive director. “But they had (developed) some skills that will enable them to apply for entry-level (trades) jobs.” With opportunities like these, added Faustin, “a whole world opens up to you.”
As DeWeese and Peri see it, that “world” is finally expanding for women nationwide.
“The industry is embracing women and they’re recognizing the contributions that women make in all different fields. And women are seeing themselves in the field. The biggest thing now is I’m not the only woman in the room,” DeWeese noted.
Said Peri: “It seems like there is more momentum toward getting more women in the trades and figuring out how to make the trades more accessible to women. But it (greater representation of women in the field) is still a long ways away.”