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Few women in construction; recruiting efforts rise

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 30, 2014 at 11:49 am •  Published: August 30, 2014
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NEW YORK (AP) — Janice Moreno graduated from college with a degree in English literature, but never landed a job paying more than $12 an hour. Now, at 36, she's back in the classroom — in safety glasses and a T-shirt — learning how to be a carpenter.

"I believe it's going to pay off," she said amid instruction in sawing techniques.

If Moreno's six-week training program in New York City leads to a full-time job, she'll have bucked long odds. On this Labor Day weekend, ponder the latest federal data: About 7.1 million Americans were employed in construction-related occupations last year — and only 2.6 percent were women.

That percentage has scarcely budged since the 1970s, while women have made gains since then in many other fields.

Why the low numbers, in an industry abounding with high-paying jobs that don't require college degrees? Reasons include a dearth of recruitment efforts aimed at women and hard-to-quash stereotypes that construction work doesn't suit them.

Another factor, according to a recent report by the National Women's Law Center, is pervasive sexual harassment of women at work sites.

"It's not surprising that the construction trades are sometimes called 'the industry that time forgot,'" said Fatima Goss Graves, the center's vice president for education and employment. "It's time for this industry to enter the modern era — to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for women, hire qualified female workers and enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment."

Efforts to accomplish those goals are more advanced in New York than in many parts of the country, with pledges by unions, employers and city officials to boost women's share of construction jobs. One key player is Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, a nonprofit which offers training programs such as the one taken by Moreno.

The organization has arrangements with several unions to take women directly into their multiyear apprenticeships — at a starting wage of around $17, plus benefits — once they complete the program. After four or five years, they can attain journeyman status, with hourly pay of $40 or more.

Kathleen Culhane, NEW's interim president, said more than 1,000 graduates have obtained apprenticeships since 2005, and 12 to 15 percent of the apprentices with some leading unions are women.

NEW covers all costs for its students, who must be able to carry 50-pound loads.

Beyond learning job skills, the students do role-playing to get ready for future challenges. Among the topics, Moreno said, is how to distinguish between flagrant sexual harassment that should be reported, as opposed to less egregious behavior.

"They want us to be prepared for the possibility we won't be liked, or we'll be the only woman on the job," Moreno said.

If young women considering a construction career are in search of a role model, Holley Thomas might fit the bill.

She took up welding at a community college in Alabama, landed a job in 2009 with construction giant KBR Inc., and in 2010 became the first woman to take first place in welding at the Associated Builders and Contractors' National Craft Championships, a competition launched in 1987.

Thomas, 29, is now supervising a 10-worker crew at a KBR project in Florida. She speaks occasionally to high school girls, who are impressed by her paycheck that averages more than $2,000 a week.

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