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3 Women, 1 Construction Site, 1 Major Push To End The Labor And Diversity Shortage

Construction firms across the U.S. continue to battle a skilled labor shortage that is pushing project deadlines and costs in a negative direction

In mid-2018, the Associated General Contractors of America noted 80% of construction firms reported difficulties in recruiting construction craft workers for job sites. 

And, despite diversity pushes throughout the industry, only 939,000 women were in the construction industry in 2016, roughly 9% of the industry, according to the National Association of Women in Construction. This small figure continues to pose additional challenges to the industry's diversity and recruitment initiatives. 

But one construction project under the umbrella of McCarthy Building Cos. in Allen, Texas, has all of the building blocks needed to reframe the construction shortage issue into one that proactively addresses the shortage through training, early recruiting and destigmatization of the industry for both female and male recruits. 

McCarthy Project Engineer Nikita Bhagat with McCarthy Project Manager Carla Gallardo

The work site, which involves the build-out of the 360K SF Collin College Technical Campus in Allen, will serve as home base to the school’s construction management program when it opens in 2020.

The education-oriented work site is offering three female McCarthy employees opportunities to lead in their fields. The women are already graduated professionals who are rising through the ranks of McCarthy and leading significant parts of the project. 

The site they are working on will house Collin College’s construction management program, which has less than a handful of female students. 

“We are hoping that every female that comes into the industry will just create more opportunities for females and all cultures,” the program’s construction management lead and professor Craig Johnson said. “We have diversity in construction, but we are still lacking in some areas for sure. I have three females in my program currently out of 40 students, so they are there, but it’s not where it should be.”

On any given day, McCarthy Project Manager Carla Gallardo, a civil engineer by training, is on-site managing the self-perform concrete portion of the Collin College Technical Campus.

Gallardo plays a critical role in ensuring employees have the tools they need to build out the site, while also managing communications between the owner and the project’s architects. 

Gallardo said she is the first person in her family to enter the construction industry and works to actively promote the industry to all candidates, including women who may not know their backgrounds in engineering or architecture fit nicely into construction. 

McCarthy's Matthew Schrodel, Elizabeth Hahn, Carla Gallardo and Nikita Bhagat with Collin College's Construction Management program's Craig Johnson

Long thought of as a male-dominated field with few promotional opportunities for women, the stereotypes have not been true for Gallardo, who said mentorship and growth opportunities have existed at every point of her career. 

Her favorite part of the industry is how challenging it can be on a daily basis. Like many in construction, she challenges stereotypes that downplay how stimulating and personally fulfilling the industry can be on a daily basis. 

“When you walk in the door, you have a plan and then everything comes apart and you end up doing something else,” she said. “That’s the fun of it. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you challenged and your mind is working all of the time. You feel accomplished because you walk out there and you see this big structure.” 

When Gallardo walks onto the Collin College site each day, she knows a cluster of next-generation students will benefit from tools and spaces inside the building that will prepare them to work alongside her in the future. 

“This is the future right here. We are training the students to get out to the construction sites and build a career,” Gallardo said.  

McCarthy Senior Craft Development Manager Shawn Morris prepares the training trailer on a job site in Plano, Texas.

The building will offer Collin College's students 42K SF of shared classroom space. 

The site will also have a 151K SF academic building, meeting rooms, a conference building and a 177K SF facility with custom-built lab spaces, mechanical electrical spaces, plumbing shops, welding areas, auto shops and carpentry facilities for students in training. 

Two other women working for McCarthy and on the project — project engineers Elizabeth Hahn and Nikita Bhagat — came into the field through the study of architecture.

Hahn said construction is always what she wanted to do, but she had no idea there was a specific path or training program for this side of the business. Collin College's program aims to offer a clearer path for students like Hahn in the future. 

“I think part of the reason I didn't think about it for so long was because it was hidden,” Hahn said. “It's just not marketed towards women or a large group of people. It's not necessarily any school's fault; it's just that in our environment, in the way we grew up, I just never thought of it as an option.”

Bhagat found a job at McCarthy when she met members of the company at a design competition she participated in as a student. She said on-the-job learning is key to attracting women and young people into the profession, which is why the Collin College Technical Campus is inspiring. 

“I think that’s why schools like the one we are building are going to play a crucial role. This is a one-stop facility where you get exposed to the different avenues ... and you can try your hand on different things,” Bhagat said. 

McCarthy brings a training trailer on job sites to train new construction workers and to help veterans brush up on old and new skills.

In its efforts to reach out to women and the next-generation workforce, McCarthy has stepped beyond offering internships, doing on-site campus visits, hosting construction camps for young people, and offering an on-site training trailer that guides novice and experienced craftsman through new skills or refresher courses at different work sites. 

“We decided to make a significant investment in our overall efforts to better recruit, develop and engage the workforce, so the trailer is one component of that,” McCarthy Vice President of Talent Management R.J. Morris said. “It’s obviously a great tool and a great system for us to be able to deliver on-site in the moment at the elbow assistance to professionals on the job sites.”

But the training trailer is not enough. Morris said the next step in drawing men and women into the industry is removing harmful stigmas and promising parents and kids that construction is not just about carrying shovels, but a lucrative career with advancement opportunities. 

“You can earn a fantastic living and provide a good living for your family within the construction industry,” Morris said. “There was a time where for a couple of decades there that message might have been kind of lost. There was some messaging that you needed to go to college no matter what and maybe a career in construction didn’t seem sexy or challenging.”