The Road Less Traveled
Construction Careers for Women
We’ve all seen construction sites firsthand in our daily lives over the years, whether passing by in our vehicles or on foot, or maybe even when arranging our own homebuilding or renovation projects. We may not pay much attention to the skilled tradespeople on hand doing the hard labour, whether it’s loading and unloading tools and equipment, assembling scaffolding, assisting contractors, or mixing, pouring and levelling concrete. We may not know everything that construction workers do, but we probably have a pretty clear mental image of what they look like – and that picture doesn’t typically include women.
Traditionally, the world of construction is regarded as one inhabited primarily by men, and while women are increasingly venturing into the profession, they are still vastly under-represented in an industry that offers a large and lucrative employment opportunity. As the work world continues to evolve and change, it’s time for women to explore the opportunities available to them in construction.
According to the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC), Canada’s construction industry is one of its biggest sectors, employing one in 13 working-age people and more than 1.4 million Canadians. Despite this impressive number, however, women account for only 12 percent of the workforce, with about 75 percent of them working off-site in the areas of management, sales and business administration, with an estimated 40 percent making up the total off-site construction workforce. When it comes to donning a hard hat and steel-toed boots and stepping on site into a skilled trade, that gender imbalance is extremely noticeable, with less than four percent of women forging their careers there. So while the industry has plenty of jobs to offer, women remain either reluctant to partake, intimidated by the largely male-dominated landscape, or blocked from entering the industry due to institutional barriers.
In the United States, only 9.1 percent of America’s construction workers are women, according to cnbc.com, while earning an average 95.7 percent of what their male equivalents make, according to The National Association of Women in Construction. Much like Canada, of the women currently employed in the U.S. construction industry, 45 percent are in sales and office roles, 31 percent are in professional management roles, 21 percent work in natural resource, construction and maintenance roles, 1.5 percent are in service occupation roles (such as cleaning and maintenance jobs), and 1.4 percent fill the production, transportation and material moving roles.
Construction salaries can be very rewarding: in the States, the average annual salary for construction workers in 2017 was $38,890 but can reach over $100,000 depending on training and future career paths. In Canada, the average construction worker salary is $40,706 a year, or $20.88 an hour. Entry level positions start at $29,250 a year with experienced workers making up to $58,910 a year, according to neuvoo.ca.
So why aren’t more women making construction a definite career choice? Part of the problem stems from job counselling education that starts in high school, when trades in general aren’t pushed as a high priority for students after graduation. This is an issue across the board in North America, where university is still commonly held in higher regard than studying a skilled trade. When it comes to apprenticeships or trade certificates, women in particular remain half as likely to obtain these as men, opting to pursue university or college degrees instead of a hands-on skill. Yet apprenticeships that offer “earn while you learn” options provide serious benefits not found with other more traditional job choices, and there’s good money to be made once you’ve learned your skills. When women do go into the construction field, they often prefer professions such as interior finisher, welder and electrician, with more than half in the past five years choosing to explore these areas as careers, according to careersandeducation.ca.
According to CAWIC, education is one of the key factors needed when helping women view construction as a possibility for a career. Representation is key, too: the more women see themselves represented in the field, either through school career pamphlets, in videos, or in the media at large, the more women will see the opportunity as attainable and enviable, either for those venturing into the workplace for the first time or those possibly considering a mid-career change. Education in the public and high school environments is vital in order to show women that skilled trades and construction are a viable, lucrative career path that they may never have previously considered, because no one in their families are employed in the industry, none of their friends are considering that route, and, probably most importantly, the field is seen as traditionally male-dominated. Whether it involves creating more scholarships and bursaries aimed at enticing women to enter the field, or simply educating all students through information and mentoring, construction and skilled trades are tremendous areas where women can find lifelong careers and make a lasting impression.
Historically, periods of expansion in construction, coupled with rising wages and positive job prospects, tend to attract women into the industry, according to careersandeducation.ca. Canada’s construction industry is expected to grow, but only moderately over the coming decade, which could challenge the recent upward trends of women in the skilled trades. Present trends mean an estimated two thirds of women entering the construction industry over the next 10 years will subsequently move into off-site career paths, such as those in office support and engineering, while one third will enter trades directly related to construction projects.
Certainly, construction can offer a lot of positives for women, including financial stability, independence, and travel across the country and even around the world. The job keeps you physically and mentally engaged, and the learning curve is ongoing as new paths and skills are developed and utilized. Once in the field, it’s important to encourage other women to follow in your footsteps as well, by offering mentorship, joining committees or councils, visiting schools or even posting or blogging about the field on social media. Diversity in any field is imperative, and encouraging women – and especially minority women – to follow in your footsteps is vital to the future of the construction industry at large.
No matter what profession you undertake, there will always be barriers and challenges to tackle, but women in construction encounter some particularly challenging ones, including of course, sexism and the notion that women don’t have the physical strength or endurance for hard labour. But utilizing passion, knowledge and acquired skills will go a long way to silencing the naysayers. Seeking out mentors in the profession and forming a strong support system, especially with other experienced women in the industry, either for guidance or as friends, is an invaluable tool to help make your path a little smoother.
Finding your chosen career is a daunting prospect, and changing careers mid-life even more so. Taking a chance on a job in the construction industry could be the difference you’re looking for now and down the road.