The U.S. desperately needs more skilled workers across industries.
The number of open construction jobs, for example, jumped to a record high of 449,000 unfilled positions in April, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the highest measure in the history of the data series (going back to late 2000).
According to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) organization, to meet the increasing demand for labor, the construction industry needs to immediately attract nearly 650,000 additional workers over and above its normal pace of hiring in 2022.
To solve this crisis, the construction field must attract and retain more women. We will never close the skills gap if we ignore half the population in this country. Right now, women simply aren’t going into many of the trades that desperately need more workers, including trucking, construction, and auto mechanics, to name a few. In fact, only 10.3% of U.S. construction workers are women (source: Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS]). This is a relatively small percentage compared to other industries. For example, the BLS noted that women accounted for “51.8% of all workers employed in management, professional, and related occupations in 2019.”
We also need to get serious about transforming the industry. McKinsey & Co.’s report Imagining Construction’s Digital Future, predicts that the “shortage of skilled labor and supervisory staff will only get worse. These are deep issues that require new ways of thinking and working.”
The good news is that according to Fox Business, trade school enrollment is surging in key areas—-and by nearly 17% for construction schools. One reason that more students are starting to rely on trade school education is the lower cost of tuition (on average $30,000 for only one-two years versus the same price tag for one semester at a four-year college). And employment after graduation is practically guaranteed. However, the vast majority of these students are still men, and the supply is still not nearly enough to keep up with demand.
There are four key things we can do better to help solve the skilled worker shortage and attract women into construction roles:
1. Start Early with Role Modeling Women in Construction
It’s hard for girls to imagine a role in construction if women remain nearly invisible in the industry. While there are a growing number of apprenticeships, mentoring programs, and professional organizations aimed at supporting women in construction roles, Mollie Elkman, owner of homebuyer marketing business Group 2, wants to help girls envision a life in building much earlier in their lives.
Recently, she published a children’s book called The House That She Built. It’s based on a true story of an all-women built home, and it is an inspiration to young girls — to show that they too can be a part of building. It highlights the various roles and skills that are necessary to build a home and helps get kids excited about their own career options. Creative approaches like these can help young girls and women seek out a path toward previously “unconventional” roles for women.
2. Recruit Women into Trade Schools
Construction schools, as with many trade schools, need to get better at recruiting women. Not only do they need to help women envision a life for themselves in construction — they also need to market the type of work that will make up the future of skilled jobs. Although there is no part of heavy labor that women can’t do, for those women and men less inclined for heaving lifting, modern construction work increasingly will be done digitally, with drones, laser scanners and robotics than ever before.
And of course, women need to see the financial benefits of a life in construction. Trade schools, advocacy groups, and local governments can all help build awareness around the income potential of construction jobs. For example, Construction managers earn an average of $95,260 a year, with an hourly rate of $45.80 (Online Schools Center, 2021).
And significantly, women in construction are paid the closest amount to their male counterparts that any other industry. According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), women earn an average of 99.1% of what their male counterparts make in the construction field.
3. Leverage Technology to Improve Retention Rates
Getting women in the door of trade schools is just the first step — retaining them is another thing. Vocational schools need to re-examine their digital capabilities to this end. Although many parts of our education system have already leveraged technology to improve access, efficiency, and accountability, many vocational schools are lagging behind, with outdated student information systems. This makes it difficult to deliver the high-quality learning experience that students expect in a post-pandemic world and has a negative impact on student retention.
Transforming technology within trade schools has benefits for all stakeholders – including students, teachers, schools and employers. Modern technology solutions have the potential to help schools meet compliance requirements, improve attendance statistics, and promote behaviors that lead to improved graduation rates.
They can identify at-risk students and help get them back on track. For example, student portals that include attendance trackers and geofencing can pinpoint students who are often late, or don’t complete and turn in assignments. Administrators can monitor these systems and intervene when necessary to keep students on the path to graduation.
4. Help Place Women into Construction Roles
To place women in construction jobs that are meaningful, potential employers must be thoughtful, proactive and involved long-term. This article, from Occupational Health & Safety, has some great advice for how to recruit and retain women in construction, including the basics, like choosing words in a job description wisely, reaching out to women who have potential, including women in the hiring process, and providing ongoing networking and support to women once they are hired.
Jobs supported by trade school education are in great demand and fill an important role in today’s economy. We will never be able to fill all these open roles if we cannot harness the talents of female workers. Not since WWII has there been such pressure on our infrastructure, and such an opportunity for transformation. Back then, when so many of our men were off at war, the U.S. embarked on a bold initiative to bring women into skilled trades roles, christening the famous Rosie the Riveter.
Now, it’s time to bring Rosie the Riveter into a new century. Today’s “Rosies” require (and deserve) more role models, targeted recruitment efforts, modern technology and education, professional support networks, fair pay, and the new skill sets required to deliver on the future of work.
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