Is the future of construction female?

Job fairs and apprenticeships are nothing new, but increasingly construction firms are hosting hands-on learning programs to showcase the industry and its career potential to young people — especially girls.

With the cost of a college education only going up, the unemployment rate at record lows and not enough skilled laborers to fill open positions, the construction industry is working overtime to recruit the next generation of tradesmen and women.

That recruitment is increasingly starting earlier and earlier, and with an added emphasis on showcasing the profession to young girls who in the past might never have considered a career in construction.

The efforts are highlighted by two local efforts to put the construction profession on display for area boys and girls who could be the next faces of the trades.

From June 11–15, J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. held its first Construction Camp, a fun, hands-on opportunity for local students to learn what it means to be a general contractor.

Coming up on Friday, Aug. 10, Miron Construction will host Build Like a Girl at 8215 Greenway Blvd., Suite 100, in Middleton from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., which will allow a full class of seventh to 10th grade girls to learn the tricks of the construction trade. This is the third year for the Build Like a Girl event and the first year the program will come to the Madison area.

Build Like a Girl, previously only held in Neenah, will make its Madison debut in August.

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, as of 2015, women made up just 1.3% of the entire U.S. construction workforce. Here in the Badger State, “women make up an estimated 5% of Wisconsin’s workforce in construction and the skilled trades,” according to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s a rich source of potential workers the construction industry sees as a lifeline to its future.

“We actually see the shortage of women in the construction workforce as an opportunity,” notes Dave Walsh, Miron Construction’s vice president of human resources. “It’s an untapped market for us in terms of recruitment. We think a job in construction is perfect for women, especially those born and raised in Wisconsin. Women raised in our state are hard working, not afraid of the climate, and they already spend time outdoors hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and more; we think it makes perfect sense to recruit women to work outdoors, as well.”

According to Walsh, events like Build a Girl provide young women with the opportunity to try out hands-on activities related to the field of construction. Miron also has women currently working in the construction field speak to the girls about their jobs in the industry and answer any questions they may have. “Our program lets the girls see for themselves what they could expect from a career in construction,” he notes.

That’s a sentiment echoed by Amanda Byrd, senior marketing and communications specialist for Findorff.

Findorff held its first Construction Camp for area youth in early June. Photo credit: Nancy Mayek, Findorff

“As we consider women, Findorff makes a point to showcase the industry not only as an area for opportunity, but also a place where they belong,” explains Byrd. “We build awareness by using our female staff as examples of what young women can aspire to be in their future careers. In the case of our first Construction Camp, women working in departments such as accounting, marketing, and project management presented at, and attended, the events planned for students. We have even had several women from our office present to younger children in schools about what they do in the construction industry.”

Byrd says Findorff also makes a point to recognize Women in Construction Week. The annual event highlights the growing role women play in the industry and brings awareness to the evolving opportunities available for women. This year, Findorff recognized several of its own women employees and what is involved with each of their jobs, ranging from yard operations to managing building systems, information it shared through the company’s e-communications, social media, and website.

“If you look at Miron’s approximately 1,200 field employees, only about three to four are women,” notes Walsh. “Those numbers are not unique to our company either. On any given construction site, you will typically only see a handful of women at work, if you see one at all. This is why it’s so important to us to get women of all ages interested in careers in the trades.”

Byrd says that’s about the same for Findorff. The percentage of female workers employed by Findorff can vary depending on the area of work. Specifically, the percentage of women in the field is 1%, while in the office it is 33.9%. Overall, the percentage of women employed by Findorff is 9.1%, which hovers around the national average of 9.3%, according to Engineering News Record.



Build Like a Girl

Carole Schaeffer, Miron Construction’s vice president of business development for the Madison region, says the company is eager to host its first Build Like a Girl event in Madison next month. It’s June event in Neenah sold out, and Madison participants will get to tour UW–Madison’s Nicholas Recreation Center project, formerly known as the SERF.

“The first two years that Miron held Build Like a Girl at our home office in Neenah it was wildly successful,” says Schaeffer. “Our regional offices have been very vocal about wanting a Build Like a Girl event near them.” The Madison office will pilot a scaled-down version of Build Like a Girl, which Miron hopes will be a launching pad for similar events at other regional offices in the future.

“We want young women to really connect with the fact that construction jobs are not just for boys,” states Schaeffer. “These are family supporting jobs with great benefits and upward mobility. You can have a bright future with a career in construction. If you select the construction route, you have the opportunity for an apprenticeship, where we will pay for your education, and on top of that you’ll get paid for your work while you’re learning.”

Build Like a Girl is meant to let young women get a day of hands-on, tangible interaction with the industry. Throughout the day, participating girls tour a live jobsite, hear from a panel of women who work in the field on Miron construction projects, and have the opportunity to ask questions of their own. Then they get to get their hands dirty at a variety of activity stations, which include things like laying brick, building walls, pouring and leveling concrete, and operating cranes and boom lifts.

“It’s really fun to watch the girls get more comfortable as the day progresses and get excited about the construction trades,” says Schaeffer. “I will admit to a bit of envy on the crane operation!”

According to Walsh, Miron sees a lot of growth potential for construction careers in project management and estimating, as well as virtual construction. “So many companies rely on 3D modeling for visualization, analysis, coordination, and fabrication during the construction process because of the many benefits to the company and customer, including safety, more accurate estimates, compressed schedules, and cost-savings.”

The response from participants of previous Build Like a Girl events has been overwhelmingly positive. Comments like the following from parents and guardians are not uncommon:

  • “Thank you for orchestrating such an amazing event for girls! … I cannot thank you enough for wanting to build your workforce, but at the same time giving back to the community building career awareness for girls.”
  • “I want to thank you as my daughter had an amazing time. She had no clue what she wanted to do when she grows up and she does now.”
  • “Thank you for putting this on for the girls. My daughter had a really good time and more importantly she learned that girls can do anything.”

“I think it’s very important that more females go into this field because there aren’t very many,” adds Becky White, a carpenter for Miron. “It’s a good way to make a good living, and they’re capable of doing it.”

Construction Camp

Findorff has had a long-standing relationship with several school districts throughout Dane County, specifically the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, notes Matt Breunig, director of project management for Findorff, who was a major part of this year’s Construction Camp and is also heavily involved with Findorff's K–12 education projects. As part of this relationship, Findorff has routinely worked with the district’s school-to-work coordinator to help build awareness for career opportunities in construction. In turn, the company learned of the district’s connection with the Dane County School Consortium. Its mission is to “provide youth a pathway for tomorrow’s careers through the integration of learning opportunities that will connect classroom education to industry.”

Photos by Harper Fritsch Studios

“We thought a construction camp would be a great way to introduce students to what it means to be a general contractor,” Breunig explains. As the Consortium works with 16 school districts throughout the area, students from multiple districts had the opportunity to participate.”

A dozen students ages 14 to 17 participated in the first Construction Camp, and Breunig notes they were engaged and excited to learn about construction, as well as participate in various hands-on activities.

Each day of the five-day camp offered different insights into what it means to work in construction, at a variety of locations throughout Dane County.

  • Day 1: Students visited Findorff’s Madison office to learn the various departments involved with the construction of a building, including business development, virtual construction, accounting, and project management.
  • Day 2: A variety of construction careers were shared with students while visiting General Heating & Air Conditioning with Findorff. From reviewing 3D computer models and estimating projects to prefabrication, students learned about all aspects a project. The highlight for students was the hands-on portion where they worked directly with tradespeople to build sheet metal toolboxes, which they could take home.
  • Day 3: Students had the opportunity to do a project with steel studs at the Carpenters’ Union Training Center.
  • Day 4: Students learned technical skills to make Ethernet cables at the Electrical Union’s Training Center, as well as used hand tools to become familiar with how they work.
  • Day 5: Findorff is currently doing work at the McFarland School District, which provided an opportunity for students to tour a real construction site. Students learned about the overall construction process, along with the many facets of construction that make it such a broad industry. In addition to the technical hard skills learned in the classroom, camp leaders spoke to the essential soft skills needed for a career in construction management, such as communication, organization, critical thinking, and problem solving. After a brief introduction to reading construction plans, students toured the district’s McFarland High School and Indian Mound Middle School jobsites. They learned about the day-to-day roles and responsibilities of the earthwork and site-utility tradesmen, concrete finishers, carpenters, and laborers. In addition, students had the chance to try their hand at drywall demolition in the ongoing renovation work at Indian Mound Middle School.

The overall response was fantastic, says Breunig. “Students seemed to really appreciate getting hands-on experience through the different activities offered each day. They were also excited to learn of the may career paths the construction industry has to offer.”

“I was surprised by how much I didn’t know,” says Joseph Steinmetz, a ninth grader from the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.

“Exploring career opportunities in construction was great,” adds Verona Area High School student Ryan Christensen. “Trades professionals walked us through the building process and helped us understand the many parts of construction.”

Findorff Project Engineer Tony Shepherd also appreciated the chance to participate in the company’s first Construction Camp. “We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to introduce the Construction Campers to the ongoing work we are doing at the McFarland School District. Students learned about the overall construction process as a whole, along with the many facets of construction that make it such a broad and interesting industry.”

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