Women help fill labor gap in construction

By Lucy Barnard and Paige HaeffeleFebruary 03, 2022

Demolition skills shortage - women Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that women make up just 12% of the global construction industry

According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzed by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), numbers show that women in the U.S. made a collective net loss of more than 3 million jobs between February 2020 and September 2021.

The construction sector was one of the few industries where the number of jobs held by women over that time period actually increased - by 300,000.

“Three hundred thousand jobs may not sound like much but when you think about it, that’s slightly more than the total number of dental assistants in the U.S., which is generally considered a fairly typical female profession,” says Ariane Hegewisch, who leads the Employment and Earnings program at the IWPR.

“This current trend is genuinely new,” Hegewisch says. “In previous downturns women lost more jobs than men in the [construction] sector but this time women actually increased their share of jobs.”

Table showing post-pandemic job gains and losses data Credit: BLS Data

The need for more women to enter and remain in construction industries across the developed world is painfully clear. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that women make up just 12% of the global construction industry – around 10% in the U.S. and 13% in Canada.

Post-pandemic boom to lead to more diversity

Hegewisch believes the post-pandemic boom in construction, coupled with a chronic shortage of skilled workers, could act as a catalyst to diversifying the industry.

She says that during the pandemic, most states and countries not only treated construction as an essential service which was allowed to continue during lockdowns, but governments around the world have also invested heavily in construction and infrastructure projects as part of a plan to kick-start the economy and create more jobs. Here, the $1.2-trillion dollar infrastructure bill has the potential to create thousands of jobs in the United States.

Although construction workforces fell slightly at the start of the pandemic, state capital investment projects coupled with a housing boom prompted by a shift in the population’s preference for living in larger homes in towns and suburbs rather than in cities led to a swift recovery. This triggered a rapid increase in available jobs.

In the past, younger workers tended to bear the brunt of job cuts during recessions, while older managers were often the ones keeping their jobs. However, when the pandemic hit, the aging baby boomer demographic saw it as a natural segue to early retirement, says Hegewisch.

In many developed countries, the construction industry has struggled to recruit and retain staff since the 1970s and 1980s. According to U.S. government figures in 2018, around 22% of construction workers were aged 55 and over – up from just under 17% in 2011.

“Even before the pandemic, the U.S. economy was booming. This meant that white men who might otherwise have gone into construction could go elsewhere and get better paid, less strenuous jobs. So in some areas of the U.S., we have seen more women recruited into the trades,” Hegewisch says.

For site-focused roles, women comprise just a tiny fraction of workers, representing less than 4% in the US. “Construction jobs tend to be well-paid when compared with other work that does not need a college degree, so for many years, entry-ways into the trade have been tightly guarded,” says Hegewisch.

The benefits of remote work

The United States and UK have both been affected to a similar magnitude throughout the entirety of the pandemic thus far. Holly Price, a director at Keltbray, a British demolition firm, was personally affected.

Photo of Holly Price “The pandemic has showed us all that we can use technology like Zoom and Teams and I think that has been really beneficial for my work-life balance,” Holly Price, Keltbray

“I don’t know how I managed to physically get to so many meetings and to travel so much,” says the director of skills and communities; and an explosives engineer by training who, until recently, also acted as president of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.

“The pandemic has shown us all that we can use technology like Zoom and Teams and I think that has been really beneficial for my work-life balance,” she says. “Now, if I can get online, I can work.”

Price started her career in the demolition sector at age 17, trained as an engineer, and worked her way up to become the first female explosives expert in Europe. She also works to promote diversity and attract newcomers of all backgrounds to the industry, which is typically seen to have one of the most macho cultures in the trades job market.

“I would argue that the pandemic is a golden opportunity to re-balance the construction industry as a whole,” Price says. “In the past, construction companies have not always approached jobs with flexibility in mind. We haven’t questioned whether it is necessary to have every member of a team on site for 10 hours a day. Covid has proven that some people can work remotely.”

Although she stresses that it is still too early to really know what the full effects of the pandemic have been on everyday life, and despite the fact that many demolition jobs by their very nature must be performed on site, Price says the restrictions forced upon firms could provide a very much-needed kick to help the industry attract and retain more women.

“If you had asked about flexible working two years ago, I think most employers wouldn’t have understood what you were talking about,’’ she says, “And if they did, they would have said ‘absolutely not.’”

“Things were beginning to change before the pandemic, but it has proven that people are more open to opportunities in the construction sector,” says Price.

“Flexible working practices and policies have been identified as key to attracting and retaining female staff and improving gender equality, and while there are many roles in the construction space which cannot be done remotely, it appears that many companies in the sector are actively seeking to promote and encourage flexible working practices where possible.”

Price’s views seem to contradict the situation at the beginning of the pandemic. More women than men dropped out of the workforce in order to deal with a sudden loss of childcare and the sudden responsibility of homeschooling, which has created what some economists have dubbed a “she-cession.”

Unlike the “man-cessions” of the 1970s, which affected heavy industries such as construction and manufacturing, the sectors most affected by the continuous lockdowns have been the service industry – restaurants, retail, childcare and education – where over half of employees are female.

Photo of solar panels in a field New opportunities for women in so-called ‘green construction’ roles - such as environmental engineers or sustainability consultants - are often less site-based than other construction roles and allow more flexibility Photo: Martin Barraud/Caia Image

“As a historically male-dominated sector, construction has traditionally reported one of the largest gaps in the average earnings of male and female employees. While many companies have implemented new strategies to measure and address diversity, there is still not equal representation,” said Susannah Donaldson, a legal director at Pinsent Masons.

“It is particularly apparent that fewer women occupy senior or more highly paid roles within the sector, and it tends to be that the majority of new recruits are predominantly male.”

The pandemic has forced every industry – including construction – to cope with an ever-changing situation. As we continue into year three of the pandemic, companies will have to continue to reimagine and adapt their hiring, as well as their working, practices.

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