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Women Have Created Paths For Upward Growth In Construction. Now They're Working On The Next Step

The world of commercial real estate underwent a revolution in the past decade. Although much progress is still needed to reach equality, the overwhelmingly male-dominated profession made room for women to join as project developers, brokers, property managers and other positions, and many women seized the opportunities presented to ascend to the C-suite.

But men still completely dominate outside the office. On construction sites, men constitute more than 90% of the labor force, working a set of high-paying, unionized jobs, ones that can provide a middle-class lifestyle without requiring a college degree.  


The disparity may start impacting the industry more in the coming years. Builders have already complained about a labor shortage in the trades, a factor in the steep rise in constructions costs.

Between January 2018 and January 2019, the economy added 2.7 million jobs, including 338,000 in construction, a healthy 12.5% increase, according to New York City-based Marcum, a national accounting firm. That’s the good news.    

But as the economy keeps rising and developers start breaking ground on more projects nationwide, demand for skilled workers is increasing, and the labor supply is getting stretched thin. In December, one of the construction industry’s most active recent months, the sector added another 88,000 unfulfilled jobs.  

Marcum Chief Construction Economist Anirban Basu, author of the report, calls that “a reflection of the growing difficulty contractors are having filling the expanding number of open positions.” 

Recruiting more women might help fill this gap. Opportunities for women have grown in construction, but female employees are still uncommon.

“For every 100 men I see in the field, there are maybe three or four women,” Urban Innovations Assistant Project Manager Amanda May said. The Chicago-based firm helped pioneer the renovation of loft buildings into creative office space.

May considers even a handful of women on job sites a sign of progress, since when she started in development nine years ago, she likely would have seen no other women at all.

Ashlee Pforr, senior project manager of Skender, one of Chicago’s leading construction firms, has likewise witnessed the growth of women decision-makers, but has not seen similar gains on job sites. Out of roughly 60 people in her office, about 20 are women, up from a tiny handful 10 years ago, and on job sites she went from seeing almost no women to about five for every 50 to 75 workers.

The numbers bear out both women’s experiences. Women make up only about 3% of Illinois’ roughly 220,000 construction jobs, including plumbers, welders, carpenters and electrical workers, according to Chicago Women in Trades.

“That hasn’t changed in all these years,” Marketing and Communications Director Sharon Latson-Flemister said.

A recent class held by Chicago Women in Trades

May said one of the toughest barriers to recruiting women for these traditionally male jobs is that most women don’t even consider construction work a possibility.

“Most of these positions can be done by anybody, and if more women understood that, we would see far more recruits,” she said.

Still, she said it is hard to break barriers. When she started her career, she was one of only two women in her office.

“It’s a bit intimidating to go into any position when you know you’re going to be in a minority.”

Helping women get over that intimidation is one goal of Chicago Women in Trades, a nonprofit founded in 1981 that advocates for women interested in construction and provides professional development, classes, funding and experienced mentors who can give career advice.

Getting hired for one of the trades takes more than desire, Latson-Flemister said. Each type of job is generally run by one of the unions, all close partners with CWIT, each with apprenticeship programs that require applicants to pass a test before admission.

“People try to take these tests on their own, and then they don’t pass, and then may get discouraged,” Latson-Flemister said.

CWIT runs a 12-week pre-apprenticeship program to combat that problem, which candidates attend two nights a week as well as Saturday. The classes are free, and open to women 18 years or older with a high school diploma or GED. The group also helps women get the necessary tools, boots and other items, which apprenticeship programs frequently don’t provide, but which can cost up to $1K.

The organization also provides exercise classes to help participants build upper-body strength, another requirement for many apprenticeship programs.

“If they can’t carry heavy loads while going up and down ladders they don’t pass,” Latson-Flemister said. “It’s very physical work, and for some women it’s a breeze, but for some it’s more of a challenge.”  

CWIT is preparing for the Chicago Construction and Career Training Expo, organized by "We Can Build It," a partnership it formed with contractors, apprenticeship programs and training providers, to be held April 24 at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 on the Near South Side.

“They all welcome our women because they know we prepare them to take the tests and pass,” Latson-Flemister said.   

The goal is not just to get women jobs, but to help them build a career for themselves, careers that offer wages that support middle-class lives, she said.

The women that worked on Morgan's Pearl Marketplace project, including subcontractors. Front row: Yaritza Cruz, Karen Prien, Eneida Evaristo, Shawndra Silas, Angelica Vallejo, Gabriela Mendiola, Lynne Marie Hash, Lilian Arely Serrano and Dalia Porcayo. Back row: Leah Kay Perez, Paulina Marvan, Peggy Lopez, Melissa Ocanas, Sharyn Pedersen, Helena Finley, Jacqueline Felix, Amanda Sterling, Joann Pyatt, Becky Cherry-Nunez and LIssette Rodriguez. Not pictured are Kelli Lathrop, Roz White, Starr DeRe

“Our biggest challenge is getting construction trades to keep women on the job, because sometimes they will bring women in to work on small projects so they can fill a quota or look good, but then they’re gone,” she said. “Our goal has to be long-term retention.”

She believes that will happen when more women on construction sites are the ones holding clipboards and directing the work, as well as performing it. And getting there means catching the attention of more women, and doing it earlier.

“I feel like we’ve grown as a society in the past 10 years, where we’ve created paths for women to become project managers, but not enough young girls have gone into construction work,” Pforr said.  

She said the industry urgently needs to broaden the pool of labor. She would like to see outreach to women even before they hit adulthood, through career days at high schools and even junior high schools.  

“If we don’t, in 10 years, when a large proportion of tradespeople start to retire, we could have even more difficulties filling construction positions.”

The next few years will stretch the labor pool even further, perhaps providing more opportunities for women in the Chicago region. The local construction industry, after seeing steady growth in the aftermath of the recession, is on the cusp of an even more fruitful period, partly driven by massive public works.

Latson-Flemister points outs the city will soon launch construction of a new terminal for O’Hare International Airport. Tollway construction is expected to ramp up, new mixed-use communities like Lincoln Yards and The 78 will start rising on the downtown’s periphery, along with the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, among many other ventures.

In all, she estimates at least $40B in new construction projects are almost ready to go in Chicago.

If the U.S. economy hits a recession sometime in the next few years, as it is expected to, that would also have an impact on workforce demand, Pforr said. Although the labor market would weaken, even that should create more opportunities for women.

“That may be a time when people start looking at jobs they may not have previously, so we will have to keep pushing,” Pforr said.

Besides helping address labor shortages, recruiting more women would have other benefits for commercial real estate, especially as the industry is more diverse at the office level, May said.

“Sometimes I have an easier time communicating with women, because we speak the same language,” she said.

Clients, who also have become more diverse, may also appreciate more female construction workers.

“Clients relate to people differently, and I’ve had clients who are more comfortable complaining about stuff to me, and some are more comfortable talking to a female on the job site as well, so I really believe men and women working together can help the construction industry in general.”