CEDAR RAPIDS — Work in the construction industry often is seen as tough, grueling and dirty. But once the dust has settled, it can offer opportunities and good pay.
But the construction industry still is trying to rebuild its workforce after the recession and as baby boomers retire. Some say now is a good time for more women to pick up the tool belt.
“There’s a great opportunity for women in the industry, it is a great time for them to get in,” said Chad Kleppe, president of Master Builders of Iowa, a construction association. “Construction is in drastic need for workers and it is a perfect time to consider. Employers are willing to train and work with candidates to work them into what they need. It is very advantageous.”
Kleppe estimated that in Iowa in 2016, all occupations within the commercial construction industry will face a combined job deficit upward of 3,000 per year, accounting for retirement and attrition.
“There’s a labor shortage across the board — carpenters to electricians. The entire industry is trying to recapture new entrances,” he said.
A 2015 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found 92 percent of Iowa construction companies are having difficulty finding workers for hourly professional positions such as carpenters, concrete workers, equipment operators, iron workers and laborers.
In 2015, women held 11.4 percent of construction jobs in Iowa, higher than national numbers of 9.3 percent. A majority of those workers are in office positions within the construction company, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
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However, Denise Balvin, who has been in the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 43 in Cedar Rapids since 1985, has seen some progress.
“A lot of times, I used to be the only girl on the job site,” said Balvin, 56, of Belle Plaine, who has paved highways, poured concrete, assisted carpenters, operated skid loaders and fork lifts and “everything you could think of.
“Right now, at the job I’m at, there are four” other women.
The latest National Association of Women in Construction breakdown in 2013 shows the number of women in the industry nationwide peaked a decade ago at 1.13 million, and the recession caused that number to decline to 802,000 by 2012.
By 2013, numbers have shown slight growth for women in the male-dominated field, but should accelerate as the generation of men commonly taking these occupations are slacking.
“We have a hard time getting young guys, and the ones we do get, we lose a lot of them,” said Denise Carnahan, NAWIC member and human resource coordinator for T & K Roofing Co. in Ely. “There are all excited about being on a roof outside and getting a tan, but when they realize they actually have to work hard, we lose them by the end of the day.
“I’ll be honest with you, the (women) we’ve had, a lot of them are really good, driven and know what they have to do. Some of them will run circles around the guys we have on the roof.”
The median wage for the construction industry is $51,965 across the state, Linn County averages $58,322 per worker and a Johnson County employee in the industry nets $48,031 annually, according to Iowa Workforce Development. It was noted by James Morris, executive officer for IWD’s Labor Market information, that the jobs used in calculating the averages included laborers, managers and office workers within the construction industry.
Another incentive that is made for construction is a narrow gender pay gap. According to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the most recent figures available, women received 78 percent of men’s median earnings in all occupations. In construction, they make 92.2 percent. Although, for women in unions, that gap is nonexistent.
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“My pay compared to other jobs has been the highest paying job I’ve had since joining the union, there is no gender pay gap. Being a laborer, male or female, you get paid the same because you are doing the same work,” said Elisha Owens, 33, from Amana who has been in the field since 2014 pouring concrete, flagging during highway maintenance and helping carpenters.
“I’ve always been interested in building stuff and trying new things. My boyfriend said the union takes women, and I said, ‘I want in,’” Owens recalled. “I went into it with no experience, and joined an apprenticeship Local 43 offered, and worked my way up. It is really nice, they train you on everything.”
“I would strongly suggest anyone to join a union. The support, training, pay scale, medical and pension is just wonderful,” said Kelly Floerchinger, 56, of Cedar Rapids, who is also a member of Local 43.
Before joining the union in late 1990s, she worked straight out of high school doing clerical and management work. Now she finds herself building bridges and highways. She currently is part of the team working on completing the new University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.
An early age
Aside from the unions helping inexperienced workers, Iowa Workforce Development, IowaWORKS and Hawkeye Community College, with a $75,000 Wal-Mart Foundation grant, bring Hawkeye Community College’s bulldozers, excavators, graders and welding simulators to IowaWORKS offices across the state. The goal is to help women transition into construction jobs.
Kira Hacker of Lisbon said she tried out a welder simulator at IowaWORKS in Cedar Rapids in late January because “I wanted to continue my education, and try to find something that pays better than what I’m doing now to support myself and my kids.
“If there were jobs or an opportunity to go into, I definitely see myself being more prepared compared to not coming here to begin with.”
Some believe the perks that makes construction attractive for women in construction should begin at an early age.
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“There has to be a cooperative effort with high schools, colleges and even middle schools to make the case that construction is a viable option for everyone,” Master Builders’s Kleppe added.
Kleppe estimated that in 30 years people working in the field without a college degree could see their net-worth being equivalent to those who have a degree.
“I think we need to give more education to the parents,” said NAWIC member Sarah Freiburger who is a risk solution adviser for the insurance and financial strategies company TrueNorth in Cedar Rapids, and a former construction safety specialist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Iowa. “I know my parents said, ‘You have to go to college’ and ‘you have to do this.’ If I would have known I could have done an apprenticeship to be an electrician or a carpenter, yeah, I would have done that. They make a very good salary.”
The Cedar Rapids Community School District has been on board to try to implement the idea of opportunity in the construction field by offering almost a dozen career technical education classes in all schools focusing on woodworking, auto mechanics, construction, building trades and welding.
“It comes down to exposure at a young age because there are people that have no idea what they want to do, and having these classes helps them decided,” said Tara Troester, curriculum facilitator for career and technical education for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
Troester said girls enrolling in these classes is few and challenging.
“The greatest challenge is their is this old idea of it being a dirty shop class, and they think it isn’t for them. We are trying to shake that off,” she said. “It comes down to targeting and really working with students and the families to let them know this is a great career opportunity.”
Troester added that she hears the teachers say females tend to be better students because of their attention to detail.
Company executives agree.
“With this labor shortage, we try to recruit young men and women out of high school,” said Sarah Ricklefs, vice president of Ricklefs Excavating in Anamosa. “In Japan, it is very common to see a women operate an excavator, bulldozer or some other piece of large equipment. Because women tend to be more detail orientated and more likely to listen to instructions or harm things,” she said. “We talked at length about getting more women, it is just a question of how to do that.”