Why are way more women suddenly working in construction?

President Biden speaks with Yurvina Hernandez at a transit line construction site in Los Angeles.
President Biden speaks with Yurvina Hernandez at a transit line construction site in Los Angeles. (David Swanson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

D.C. reader and self-described “data nerd” Claudia Marquez sent a question so perceptive that it begged for its own column.

“I have noticed more and more women working in the construction business, especially Latina women,” Marquez wrote. “Has there been a rise in women working in this industry?”

Our analysis quickly revealed that Marquez the Data Nerd knew what she was talking about. The share of women in construction has hit a record high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women surged into the industry starting around 2016, even as the number of men in construction lagged.

The nation’s capital, where Marquez lives, boasts a greater share of women in construction than any state, according to our analysis. Women in Arizona and Florida also work in construction at unusually high rates.

And as Marquez surmised, Hispanic women account for almost all that growth. Their numbers in construction have soared 117 percent over the past six years, according to our analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And much of that growth happened on work sites, not in the sort of back-office jobs where women have long been common.

“We’ve experienced an enormous growth of women in construction across the board,” said Rafael Villegas, executive director of the Georgia Hispanic Construction Association. “Way back when, you wouldn’t see a woman in the trades, in upper management, or even running the business. Now, women have a strong presence in every field.”

Most charts show the inflection point came around 2016. What the heck changed?

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Fans of obvious answers might point to the huge demand for construction workers, as evidenced by an unemployment rate that in 2016 tied its lowest level since at least 2000.

As the construction workforce ages and young people decline to enter the trades, there’s a “chronic shortage of skilled labor for our industry,” said Rose Quint of the National Association of Homebuilders. “And for that reason, we need to reach out to different populations that have traditionally not considered construction.”

When Guiomar Obregón co-founded Precision 2000, or P2K, more than two decades ago, she was one of the only female leaders in the industry. Now she employs about 80 people, not including contractors, and her work can be found in airports, military bases and other government projects throughout Georgia and South Carolina.

Obregón, who holds degrees from Georgia Tech, Georgia State and the Colombian School of Engineering, says that while she initially faced skepticism as a woman in the industry, her business has an advantage because it’s minority-owned. Even during labor shortages, she can find talented workers in populations competitors overlook, and she’s pushing her peers to do the same. She says women, in particular, represent a major untapped resource.

“We’re 50 percent of the population! There’s a huge opportunity to hire all these women. (When) we get to 50-50, then we can say it’s hard to find workers,” Obregón said. “But until then ....”

When we called experts and advocates for women in the trades, they said one painful truth explains why labor shortages benefit women: Hiring them takes extra work. Women are less likely to have experience, since men have dominated the trades for eons, and they’re often not plugged into traditional word-of-mouth hiring pipelines.

“Employers maybe have to search a little harder when the labor market gets tighter in the expansionary times,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute, “and then exercise less discretion — perhaps less discrimination — in who they’re hiring.”

But worker shortages can’t be the only explanation. Construction had neared 2016 levels of unemployment before — notably during the housing boom of the mid-2000s — yet there was no similar sustained rise in women on work sites. Why was this time different?

For one thing, the mid-2010s brought new momentum to efforts by labor groups to increase the supply of skilled tradeswomen, remove barriers to hiring them and make it easier for them to stay on the job once hired.

Consider Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), a key player in a vibrant ecosystem of such organizations. Since 1981, its trainers have given thousands of women the skills, strength and social support needed to succeed in male-dominated apprenticeship programs. But in 2016, the venerable organization took its efforts to the next level, opening a national center devoted to working with state and local governments, local organizations and corporations to better support women on the worksite.

After all, the lack of women in construction wasn’t due to a lack of supply of women willing to take lucrative, secure work as carpenters or welders. It was due to a lack of demand among employers and workplaces, which were often hostile to women workers. For women to really thrive in the trades, the industry had to change.

“Women can certainly do this work,” said Lark Jackson, associate director at CWIT’s National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment. “And we just want to make sure that industry stakeholders are aware of that and have the best training to recruit and retain them.”

Jackson and other advocates teach businesses to tweak their job postings so they’re not inadvertently discouraging female applicants. They also push for better child care and parental leave benefits, and they lead anti-discrimination and bystander-intervention training to help work sites become more welcoming.

Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching chivalrous co-workers not to jump in and offer extra help to a female apprentice tackling a heavy lift or an otherwise physically challenging task. While well-intentioned, Jackson said, that kind of assistance prevents women from demonstrating their own talents or learning from their mistakes, which can stunt their professional development.

“Women want to learn. Women can hold their own,” she said.

The turnaround in construction coincided with a surge of women into the workforce — led by Black and Hispanic women — that culminated in most U.S. jobs being held by women for only the second time in history. The first was during the Great Recession, when men were laid off at such high rates that folks tried to make the term “mancession” happen.

Women workers attained that milestone just as the pandemic sent millions back to the sidelines with increased family obligations and health concerns. But construction proved to be the exception. An essential industry that kept hiring during the pandemic, construction provided opportunities to women who, amid lockdowns and the “Great Resignation” that followed, were rethinking their newly dangerous jobs in health care and the service industry.

In about a year, women recovered all their pandemic-era losses in construction. It would take the men more than twice as long to reach the same milestone, at which point women — led by Latinas — had already pushed well past all previous highs and set new records.

Why did Hispanic women lead the charge? Social networks may have helped. More than 1 in every 5 Hispanic men employed in the United States work in construction.

In fact, Hispanic men are more heavily concentrated in construction than any other race or gender in any other industry. Asian men in financial, professional and technical industries come closest, followed by Black men in transportation and warehousing, White women in education and Black women in non-hospital medical care.

Hispanic women might be more likely to grow up in the industry and watch their fathers build a comfortably middle-class life in the trades, Obregón said. And to the extent that Hispanic women are more likely to know Hispanic men, they could have first access to new construction jobs as the industry expands.

“Having someone you know work in the construction industry, having that exposure and access to learn about it through them, definitely makes a difference,” Jackson said.

Federal legislation could further normalize the presence of women on construction sites. The bipartisan infrastructure law President Biden signed last November is a “game changer for women’s inclusion in the trades,” Jackson said.

“It feels like this is the moment where all of the preparation that the tradeswomen movement has been making over the years is finally being met with a huge opportunity,” she said.

There’s plenty of room for continued growth. Despite the recent boom, the share of women in construction sits at just 14 percent. With many women still confined to back-office roles, the rate on job sites is even lower.

“We have a lot more work to do,” Jackson said, “to make sure that tradeswomen aren’t looking around and saying, ‘I’m the only woman.’”

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