Construction skilled labor shortage is making headlines in the news. But the construction industry has a shortage of women not skilled labor.
Women who make up more than 50 percent of the population are surprisingly an overlooked solution to the skilled labor shortage. They are an untapped resource in the construction industry. The construction trades have long been among the lowest percentage of gender diversity. Women represent only 9 percent of the overall construction workforce and 3 percent of the building trades.
One of the main reasons for such low representation of women in the building trades is lack of common-sense incentives. Women are expected to balance family lives as mothers with physically demanding work in the trades.
Some building trades such as the Iron Workers are beginning to take steps to remove barriers standing in the way of women joining the trades with common-sense incentives such as paid maternity leave. Such initiatives are aimed at boosting recruitment and retention.
There’s an assumption that “women find construction work too hard or physically demanding.” As an ironworker woman, I know that assumption is not accurate. In my 30-year career as an ironworker, I have only encountered two types of workers – those who deliver and those who don’t – regardless of the gender. Gender seldom has anything to do with their work ethic and capacities. What we have learned from ironworker women who left the industry is that in many cases, work wasn’t what proved to be too difficult, but it is the way coworkers treated them on the job. While recruitment is a challenge, retention can be even more challenging.
A recent Engineering News-Record survey of the construction industry found that 66 percent of female respondents were subjected to some form of non-physical, gender-biased harassment and over 60 percent said that they have witnessed it. That’s 66 percent whose sole recourse on a jobsite is filing an EEOC claim or lawsuit. The study found that only 1.5 percent of that 66 percent file a claim.
From my own experience as an ironworker and working on diversity issues, a person who reports harassment does it only after the situation has gotten worse and impacting every aspect of their lives. Harassment isn’t something that gets left at the gate. It goes beyond our ability to cope and permeates every part of life.
More importantly, it is a safety issue. Harassment is a dangerous distraction in high-risk jobs such as ironworking. When harassment takes place on a jobsite, the aggressor is pre-occupied with bullying, the victim is distracted trying to find ways to cope with it, and co-workers who witness have a hard time paying attention to work. They are all distracted from the dicey tasks at hand.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently released a decision stating that it has no authority over jobsite harassment. OSHA considers it an Equal Employment Opportunity issue, unless physical violence takes place. But by the time violence takes place, it is too late! It certainly was the case for carpenter apprentice Outi Hicks. Harassment is a safety issue and should be treated as such.
It’s vital to make the building trades a lucrative career and a safe work environment for women, if we want to recruit and retain them. With no immediate resolution in sight for the skilled labor shortage, the construction industry must make diversity a priority and address workplace harassment. As we open the door to well-paying jobs and a more inclusive workforce, it is up to anti-bullying and harassment programs to help educate tradespeople and change the culture. Such programs educate them about the domino effect of harassment that threatens safety and help their employers find better ways to handle situations, away from aggressor-biased solutions used in the past, to solutions that empower victims and bystanders.
Furthermore, bullying, harassment and intimidation is not just a gender issue. It does not just happen to women. Men, apprentices and people of color are also affected. The old school solution of telling male victims to “suck it up” will not bode well with millennials replacing baby boomers.
Some building trades are starting to address this issue with anti-harassment programs, but we need the rest to follow suit and address this issue that hinders diversification of the workforce, which will solve the skilled labor shortage.
Vicki O’Leary is the Iron Workers general organizer for safety and diversity. She’s also the chair of the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU) Tradeswomen’s Committee.