TL;DR: Find a supportive workplace and don’t be afraid to leave if you’re not being appreciated. The construction industry is in a crisis due to not having enough people to do the work needed, with women making up only 11% of the workforce. Women like Caitlin Lowe, Mahsa Poorak and Jolene Erdman have found success in the industry and are making their mark, and suggest ways to attract more women to the industry, such as educating children early on and creating a supportive workplace.
The construction industry is in a crisis. There’s too much work to be done and not enough people to do the work. By 2030, the construction industry will host over 1M jobs that they will be unable to fill.
Part of this problem is women have joined the construction industry at a dismal rate. Although women make up about 51% of the U.S. population, they comprise only 11% of the construction workforce (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics).
However, there are women, great women, in the industry. We interviewed a few of them to learn more about why they joined, what makes them stay, and how to equip more women for careers in construction.
“The construction industry is so fun. It's a party all the time. Everybody is having fun.”
Sounds great – right ladies? At least, that’s what construction executive and owner of “Pretty Pretty Precon,” Caitlin Lowe has to say about working in commercial construction. Lowe, having worked a decade in the industry, acknowledges that she didn’t always feel that way. She had to learn to be unafraid.
“Construction is hard, and it will eat you up and spit you out, and you just can't take it personally,” Lowe says. “Do not be afraid. If you get in the room, don't care about why you got there or how you got there. Speak up. Be there. Represent who you are. If you have an idea, say it. Don’t do it quietly.”
Lowe is making her mark on the industry, integrating femininity into her brand. From the name of her company to her slogan (“Bringing a splash of pink into blue-collar industry''), to sporting a bright pink construction hat on the job site, she says she has worked hard to make space for herself in the industry.
Mahsa Poorak, COO of Southern Electric Company, says she has experienced various instances of discrimination throughout her career, but is hopeful for the future of construction. Like many in construction, Poorak came from a construction family – building is in her blood. Having previously worked as a public defender before breaking into the construction industry, Poorak feels her experience in the legal sector prepared her for navigating this environment. Poorak said, “I’ve dealt with adversity and have learned the best way to kind of play the game.”
The benefit of construction associations
Part of what has helped Poorak thrive in construction is getting support through associations and peers who turn into friends. Poorak specifically has found a support network through involvement with the Associated General Contractors of Georgia (AGC), which she joined in January of 2021.
“That organization has gone really far out of their way to bolster me in a way that I think is just absolutely phenomenal,” Poorak says. “... I feel like it's important in my role to invest time in organizations that are going to help the growth of our industry because we have a lot of work to do in that regard… The AGC is really trying to find ways to come into the next generation of what construction in Georgia is going to be. They have helped me get to where I am fairly quickly.”
Similarly, Lowe has been able to find her niche as a member of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC). She has spearheaded projects like the Professional Development and Education program in her two years with the organization.
Jolene Erdman has worked for nearly four years as a BIM Specialist in Minneapolis. She says being a part of a supportive company culture has allowed her to feel empowered in her new leadership position as VDC Manager at Hunt Electric.
Erdman says. “... it's important that, one, I like my job, but more important that I like my team and who I work with. Having a good team is what gets me up in the morning to go to work.”
Attracting more women to construction
So how can the industry continue to make itself an attractive career option for women? Lowe says the future lies in educating children about career opportunities in the industry.
“You have to get middle school children to do the fun stuff and to see the cool stuff so that they can work on their basics. Then they can go to Georgia Tech, or KSU, or Michigan, these advanced schools… but you have to get them interested earlier than high school,” she says.
Poorak agrees. Her involvement with The Young Leaders Program through the AGC has allowed her to bring empowerment programs and panels to young girls in Georgia. In addition to community involvement, Poorak emphasizes the importance of women finding a workplace that appreciates them.
“It is important that if you’re not appreciated, then you should find a way to leave,” she says. “... Sometimes, as women, we have this view that the struggle is part of it, so I'm just going to put up with it. There's a difference between something being hard and being mistreated. In an environment where you're being mistreated, there are 10 other environments that will [welcome you], that will want you there, and that's the one that you should go find.”
Lowe agrees. She’s noticed a shift in the overall culture of the industry since the start of the pandemic, from the introduction to remote work to an increase in HR roles like “Vice President of People and Culture” at firms.
“[The construction industry] is becoming a little kinder, a little more Google-Esque,” Lowe brands it. She believes that construction firms are placing a higher importance on company culture, and it’s making a difference.
Poorak knows, like all other executives in construction, that diversifying your workforce is a must as we march into the future.
“At the end of the day, we are experiencing extreme deficits in the workforce,” she says. “Every single person I know who is in a position like mine is desperately trying to hire people, and it is a challenge. If we're limiting ourselves to the stereotype of what we see as construction workers that have been in the past 50 years, we are limiting our candidate pool. And not only are we limiting the people that come in, we are limiting the quality of the people that come in.”
In summary, if you’re looking to help increase the amount of people in the construction workforce:
- Start the conversation early; speak to middle schoolers, take your kids and their friends on trips to your office or the edge of a project site, and (this idea is free, no need to pay us for it) donate legos to your local afterschool programs.
- Think about your company’s culture. Would you want your daughter to work at your company?
- Get involved with and support your local associations. Union or open shop, general contractor or specialty contractor, there’s people out there ready to serve and people ready to receive your help.