A Publication of WTVP

“This [construction] is great! Women can do this. I can do this!” There’s no hesitation in the voice of this student, who recently attended a Women in Construction Day event for female high school students in central Illinois. To her, a union construction building trades career represents opportunity, excitement and a good living. And she has a good shot at getting it!

There is a movement across the country to increase the number of women and minorities in union construction occupations, especially the building trades. To the women and minorities already in the industry, they know why. Successful construction careers take hard work and dedication, but the rewards are plentiful: good wages and benefits, a nice pension, lifelong connections with co-workers, and pride in craftsmanship.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research just released a new report showing that the union movement in the U.S.—including public sector, manufacturing, construction and other unionized industries—is changing with the overall demographics of the population. Women now make up more than 45 percent of unionized workers. By 2020, they will be the majority of union workers. This projection follows the recent announcement that women now make up half of the U.S. workforce overall. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the unionized workforce, now at just over 12 percent. Asian Americans and African Americans have made slight increases over the past 25 years to hold 4.6 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

The union construction workforce is beginning to show changes in the makeup of its workforce as well, albeit at a much slower pace for women and non-Hispanic minorities. Hispanics are the exception. According to the Construction Labor Research Council’s Craft Labor Supply Outlook, the number of Hispanics in the construction trades more than doubled from 1993 to 2003 to almost 25 percent of all construction trade workers in the U.S. That number is projected to continue to increase rapidly over the next five to 10 years. Nationally, women make up between two and eight percent of the construction workforce, depending on the specific trade or construction occupation. African Americans represent slightly more than women. Women and non-Hispanic minorities are still underrepresented compared to their representation in the population, but the industry is beginning to move in a more diverse direction and increase its numbers of women and minorities.

Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council (TRICON) commissioned the Bradley Center for Business and Economic Research in 2008 and 2009 to take a look at the local union construction labor supply. Like the national picture, women and minorities are underrepresented in the local construction trades as compared to their representation in the overall population. Despite this fact, local trades have made improvements and are seeing increases in women and minorities in their respective trade unions. This is encouraging, but there is still much work to be done to build a more diverse construction workforce.

In looking at the research, there seems to be no clear consensus on why women and non-Hispanic minorities have not been able to take advantage of union construction career opportunities and represent a fair share of the construction workforce. Maybe it is the gender or racial stereotypes that plague not just construction but many careers and our society as a whole. Maybe it is a lack of awareness of these career opportunities or a lack of basic skill preparation. Maybe parents, teachers and adult leaders have misconceptions about construction careers. Maybe local, state and federal policies have not supported enough workforce development activity that connects education to careers. And maybe the construction industry hasn’t done a good enough job reaching out to and mentoring diverse populations. Whatever the reason, more and more state, local, federal, community-based, education and union construction entities are pulling together programs designed to recruit and train women and minorities for construction careers.

Efforts to build a more diverse union construction workforce not only expand opportunities to include all types of workers, but also help the industry address a pending critical shortage of qualified and skilled workers. The Bradley study points out that nationwide, the industry will need 185,000 new entrants per year to meet the demand for construction workers—a demand generated by both retirements and construction growth. Just in the immediate Tri-County Area, the union construction building trades will need more than 2,500 workers by 2018. Women and minorities represent a largely untapped and valuable resource for the industry.

The local union construction industry—building trades unions and the contractors who employ them—has been planning and implementing programs designed to reach out to all potential workers, but especially women and minorities. The industry has partnered with numerous education entities to accomplish this task: Peoria Educational Region for Employment and Career Training, Tazewell County/Area Education for Employment, Workforce Development Board/Network, Illinois Central College, Bradley University and individual trade union apprenticeship programs. Current K-12 programs include the 8th Grade Construction Career Expo, High School Work-Based Learning Program, High School Women in Construction Day, Educator Job Shadow and career fairs/presentations.

New to the area is YouthBuild! Peoria, a program coordinated by Workforce Network in partnership with the union construction industry, TRICON, Urban League, Habitat for Humanity and others. This program prepares youth ages 18 to 24 for construction careers by first helping them overcome barriers (i.e., no GED or high school diploma), followed by leadership training, hands-on training in and an introduction to construction careers, OSHA 10-hour certification, first aid/CPR certification, and an opportunity to work on Habitat for Humanity projects under the supervision of construction professionals.

With new programs and opportunities, women and minorities can get into construction trades and enjoy the benefits shared by so many already in the industry. Deb Johnigk, a laborer and long-time instructor for the Illinois Laborers and Contractors Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program, offers this observation, “The opportunities for women and minorities to enter construction careers are there. It isn’t for everybody—it just takes a willingness to learn and train, hard work and commitment.” When asked about her own career, she responds, “I don’t regret my decision to get into the trades one bit. The trades have been good to me, even in retirement. I always felt like someone had my back. I’m just really proud that I did it and stuck with it.” She adds for anyone who may be interested in construction careers, especially women and minorities, “It’s non-traditional, but give it a chance!” iBi