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Demolishing stereotypes: The evolution of the construction industry workforce

The article Sponsored Content by General Building Contractors Association provides insight to workforce development and construction labor. Philadelphia Business Journal published an article By Lauren Hanan – Director, Marketing & Communications, GBCA on Feb 1, 2020

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Far gone are the days when the stereotypical profile of a construction worker actually held true. Today, there is not one single face of the industry. Construction professionals now reflect diversity in age, race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and with efforts underway to strengthen the industry by enhancing heterogeneity, it will become even more so in years to come.

At a baseline level, contractors and suppliers are required to abide by Equal Opportunity Employment laws that ensure job opportunities are available to men and women from all walks of life. Beyond that, however, other factors are at play, shaping the makeup of today’s workforce. For one, the changing profile of the modern construction professional is undeniably affected by the national labor shortage plaguing the industry at large. With talent in short supply, demand has skyrocketed and encouraged new blood to join the ranks of the construction industry.

How opportunity creates diversity According to the Associated General Contractors of America, construction employment increased by 20,000 jobs in December and by 151,000, or 2.0 percent, in all of 2019, according to an analysis of new government data by the Associated General Contractors of America. Association officials noted that its recent survey found three out of four contractors expect to keep adding workers in 2020, but even more respondents found it difficult to fill positions in 2019, and a majority anticipate it will be as hard or harder to do so in 2020.

Alongside the ebbs and flows of the economic booms and recessions, in the past several decades, we have witnessed a constant: the demographic evolution of the construction workforce. Take, for example, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), which dates back to 1953, when it was founded by 16 women working in the construction industry in Fort Worth, Texas. Today, it provides support and opportunities for thousands of women working in construction across the country.

Breaking down stereotypes

On a national level, the industry is experiencing a substantial increase of women in its workforce. According to OSHA, in recent decades, the number of women employed in construction has grown more than 81 percent from 1985 to 2007. Even still, over a decade later, women only make up 9.1 percent of the construction workforce across the board, finds the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This evolution is evident within GBCA membership and leadership, too. Amy Novak, project executive with Torcon, Inc., who has been with the company for nearly 15 years and has worked in the Philadelphia market for the past two decades, says, “From an internship in college to now, I have continued to grow and enjoy that growth in the construction management industry. I often tell people that being a woman in this industry, although a minority position, has never been one of disadvantage. Over the last 20 years, we have seen the continued growth of women in the business from trades to management professionals, to women in high-ranking and decision-making positions with our clients.” Novak and other women working in the industry continue to break down the stereotypes associated with the “typical” construction laborer or working professional — and any stigmas attached to female workers in general.

“I have a very masculine mind. I don’t cry … I don’t gossip. I don't complain. I take the bullets just like everybody else,” said Emily Bittenbender, GBCA’s former chair of the board of directors.

Bittenbender was GBCA’s first female chair of the board in the association’s history. While many women are taking leadership roles within the industry at large, particularly on the owner and client side of the business — in health care, universities, and corporations — the increase of females taking executive or ownership roles on the trade side has still seemed very slow overall, notes Trish Harrington, director, business development, LF Driscoll Company, LLC, speaking in regards to her personal experience and perspective.

“The accomplishments of Emily Bittenbender and more female representation in the actual hands-on trades is breaking through the traditional all-male workplace,” Harrington says. Having grown up in a family of mechanical contractors, Harrington was exposed to the industry at an early age. She started her own firm at age 27, growing it to $15 million in sales when she sold it in 2005.

“During that time frame I knew of only one female service mechanic and maybe three female electricians, and other than administrative or sales roles, there were very few women, if any, in junior or senior executive roles.”

Since then, Harrington says she has witnessed a change. “LF Driscoll has numerous female project managers, safety personnel, and estimators on staff — almost double that of a few years back.”

Angela Hendrix, director of training and workforce development at GBCA, says more women are expressing interest in careers in construction, particularly when it comes to GBCA’s tuition reimbursement program. As of the end of 2019, approximately half of the students currently enrolled in the tuition reimbursement program were women, reflecting an increase among women of over 20 percent from 2015.

Welcoming all into the industry

To continue on the path that women have begun to pave, the industry is working to ensure women, as well as minorities, have an integral presence within the construction workforce both today and in the future. Groups such as GBCA’s Construction Leadership Council, the association’s young professionals’ group, which is comprised of over 50% women, is helping build the foundation for the future leadership of GBCA. But the exposure to careers in construction begins even earlier, and recruitment and mentoring programs are critical to ushering in a new, diverse generation.

Hendrix notes that local programs, such as the NAWIC Chapter 145’s MAGIC Camp for girls in grades 7 to 12, and Sisters in the Brotherhood, part of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, are ramping up efforts to increase female high school students’ interest in the construction industry. Harrington adds, “The earlier we introduce our young girls to careers in construction, the better chance we have of equaling the playing field.”

Where the industry is going

As the face of construction continues to evolve with time, so does the necessary skill set and expertise. While diversity is desired and encouraged, what matters most is educating and hiring workers with the best qualifications to get the job done.

Charlie Cook, president, R.S. Cook & Associates, and assistant clinical professor of construction management at the Drexel University College of Engineering, explains that technology is a driving factor in our changing workforce. “The trend in construction is for a smarter and more diverse workforce top to bottom,” he says. “The universal image of brawn and muddy boots is being replaced by brains and clean technology.”

This trend certainly changes how we work, but who will perform the work in the years to come? All in all, an individual’s ability and willingness to bring professionalism, attention to detail, and diligence to a job — whether it is on a construction site or in an office — transcends gender, race, ethnicity, age, or other factors.

For more information regarding workforce development and diversity in the construction industry, visit

Established in 1891, GBCA is the Philadelphia chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). GBCA provides nearly 300 member companies with access to proven advocacy, networking opportunities, safety services, education, and training programs.

Lauren Hanan brings nearly 20 years of marketing and communications experience to GBCA, and a wide range of knowledge of the Philadelphia region. Hanan directs all communications and touch points that position GBCA as the leading advocacy organization with the best trained, most skilled and most trusted construction professionals.

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