The National Association of Women in Construction Brings Positive Change to the Industry
The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) has headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas with 122 chapters across the country and over four thousand women-only members. It was initially established as Women in Construction in Fort Worth in 1953.
Undeniably, the health of the construction industry in the United States is a good indication of the health and prosperity of the nation’s economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry is projected to be the fastest growing and largest contributor to the overall economy until 2022.
Also predicted is that the industry will require close to two million additional industry professionals by 2019 to compensate for its current shortfall, according to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer (CLMA). So this is not a time for the industry to be complacent or discriminatory in its workforce.
A common perception is that only men are adept and skilled in the construction industry. The culture of the industry needs to change and recognize that women are equally capable of being productive members in any aspect of the construction industry.
This is the message that the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) promotes. And this message has not fallen on to silent ears. Women are building a place for themselves in the industry, whether by leading their own firms or working in labor-intensive jobs. They are slowly garnering the recognition they deserve.
The association functions as a support network for its members and provides services including networking, professional education, publications and training in leadership roles. Events like its Women in Construction (WIC) week helps create awareness of women in construction and the role the association plays in supporting those women.
The Bureau of Statistics 2015 report states that approximately 9.3 percent of the United States- construction industry is comprised of women, seven percent of whom are engineers. “That [statistic] hasn’t moved since 1970,” says Catherine Schoenenberger, NAWIC’s president. “We keep hovering about ten percent, and yet we constitute about fifty-one percent of the overall population.”
She explains that women are graduating from college with secondary degrees at a rate of about fifty-seven percent. “So we’re dominating in both areas, but the construction industry is unique. What’s going to drive it is really getting NAWIC out in front [of the industry], and we can seriously do that in the next couple of years.”
Catherine also says that trades organizations like the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI) have an ambitious goal of having twenty percent women in the construction industry by 2020. “That will give us at least some incremental measurement to go up against. That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s not unrealistic. It’s just that we have to keep it out there and out in front.”
She says that women remain an untapped source for trades seeking skilled workers. “We’re also excellent in organizing and doing what needs to be done to complete the job. I think there are a lot of pluses on our side right now.”
The area of construction management, administration and engineering has become a popular topic right now at some universities. NAWIC’s Boston chapter has a close association with the city’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, which has an excellent construction management program.
“A lot of their alumnae are women,” says Catherine. The Boston chapter has “really partnered with them significantly to bring their graduates into NAWIC so that they can grow and expand in their leadership roles within their companies today. It’s been a huge success.”
The average age in this chapter is thirty-two with sixty-two members and growing. “Across our association, our average age is probably about forty-seven to fifty,” notes Catherine. With respect to women in construction overall, “our ladies are killing it. They really are. They have to know every facet of the job.”
It seems that women have always had to ‘prove’ themselves in the construction sector, especially in the past, but that is slowly changing, explains Catherine. “That’s a generational thing. The incoming workforce has a different mindset.”
Today’s generation is not concerned with remaining with the same company all their working lives. “Very rarely does that happen anymore. Those twenty- to thirty-somethings are not interested in staying at a company if they’re not happy. It’s a broad spectrum. It’s just not financial. It’s a lifestyle. Their lifestyle. Their priorities are different.”
Most of today’s generation acknowledges that incurring debt is a very real part of life. However, NAWIC would like youth to know that there is a real career in the construction industry without having to accumulate substantial debt to attain an education. “You can get right into the trades,” says Catherine, suggesting that involvement with apprenticeship or internship programs enable earning while learning.
But she adds, “There is still a generation to educate. And that’s their parents and/or mentors. We are stuck in the traditional thought.” If those in junior high and high school are not exposed to current programs then, “We’re still battling the parents and the counselors of the school to have them realize that there’s a real opportunity here.”
NAWIC remains non-partisan and neutral. “Basically, we keep members in the know through newsletters and our bimonthly magazine, as well as through updates at chapter meetings.
“One of the value-added pieces of NAWIC is that we’re not specific to one facet of construction. We’re all of it.” This includes those women in administration, chief executive officers, engineers, project managers, those who own their own businesses, tradeswomen and others. “We cover the gamut.”
The NAWIC Founders’ Scholarship Foundation (NFSF), established in 1963, is a resource that enables the construction industry to be fitted with a skilled workforce through higher education. The NFSF helps fund the education for those pursuing any facet of the construction industry. “We’ve given out about $70 thousand worth of scholarships in any one year,” says Catherine. “We’re hoping to reach $100 thousand. That’s our goal this year. The Foundation will take in any candidates for scholarship receipts.”
NAWIC’s Educational Foundation (NEF) is not overseen by the association but rather consists of a separate board through which members have access. “But we do promote them because they have certification programs,” continues Catherine. “Because their first name is NAWIC, it opens up the awareness factor for who NAWIC is.”
NEF offers a Block Kids program which caters to those from kindergarten to sixth grade. Through this program, children are given the opportunity to participate in a contest to build something construction-related, using building blocks. “That’s their first introduction to what construction is,” says Catherine.
Another issue that NAWIC is addressing is dear to Catherine’s heart: personal protection equipment (PPE) that fits women appropriately and, more importantly, safely. “That is a huge issue, and we’re working with that.” She notes that she has been working with manufacturers for over twenty years to produce items such as vests, gloves, boots and safety helmets that fit women. “Thankfully, the American National Standards Institute [ANSI] that does the qualifying of classes for the PPE is realizing that it’s not just the square inches of fluorescence of reflectivity that makes the class. It’s also who’s wearing it and how are they wearing it. So they have accommodated.”
Catherine says that the deputy commissioner of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who happens to be a woman, “is paying attention as well.”
And like any aspect of the construction industry, fall-prevention safety is important for NAWIC as well. This issue, along with others including sanitation considerations on job sites, sexual harassment and violence, are the reasons that “we signed the OSHA alliance,” she says. This alliance will further address unique challenges that women face daily in construction.
NAWIC has built partnerships with associations such as Women Construction Owners and Executives (WCOE), the American Institute of Constructors (AIC), Associated General Contractors (AGC), and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). “We represent NAWIC and all its women,” says Catherine. “It’s a safe place for many women because we do have those experiences, unfortunately. The culture’s not perfect. We have to have a place where we can say, we need to change this or give me a voice at the table that I’m competent in using.”
In 1994, legislation was passed stipulating that at least five percent of government construction contracts need to be awarded to women-owned businesses (WOB). Much has changed since this legislation. Catherine explains that New York has a huge initiative. Two years ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated that there is to be a thirty percent WOB requirement on state jobs, and in the city limits of Boston, that percentage is forty percent on certain projects. “In the mom-and-pop shops, it’s very difficult to get a skilled woman on the job. However, you can have a woman-owned business represented.”
With the skilled worker shortage being the new reality in the construction industry, Catherine affirms that there needs to be “awareness that we can do anything. We have to do it harder [and] better because it’s not going to be a given. I don’t walk into a room thinking I’m a woman. I walk into a room thinking I’m a professional. I’m confident.”
“We have to move this needle. We are doing things and not getting credit for it.” A woman’s wages are currently not at parity with a man’s; a woman earns about 93 cents compared to a man’s dollar. “Our wages in the construction industry are better than any other industry. Primarily that has to do with our apprenticeship programs, our government and our unions. Unions have a great pay.”
Catherine reflects that when she joined NAWIC in 2008, “I had a perception of what I know it should be, and I haven’t changed that. I think that my perspective has been heightened. Our core purpose is to enhance the success of women in the construction industry. That is essential. We can change the industry’s face and culture.”