Fill the Frame, someday
Construction companies, industry groups, apprenticeship programs are pressing for women to help bolster the ranks
Jennifer Radniecki grew up in the construction industry, and she is a self-described crusader encouraging women to swing a hammer, operate a crane, manage a project.
As a construction project manager, don’t be surprised if you see her with a camera, taking photos of the other women on the job. She’ll be the first to admit it might be difficult to fill the lens frame.
The industry needs women — diversity on the job site makes us stronger, according to a man who runs an apprenticeship program — but, just as important, it needs workers, period.
Stand around any group of people connected to construction and the various professional and skilled trades sectors that prowl around projects, and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to veer toward the worker shortage. Commercial projects, residential projects, they all suffer.
The lack of skilled trades workers in Greater Des Moines is severe enough that several area businesses are funding a Skilled Trades Academy at the Des Moines Public School system’s Central Campus to expose students to the skills needed in construction.
It is a national problem. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that by 2024 construction employment will have experienced the largest growth of any industry, growing 2.6 percent a year with total employment of 7.2 million.
In Iowa, construction employment had dropped to 73,600 through December from 81,100 in December 2016.
Limiting that employment growth is a generation or two of potential workers who have been told that the key to a better life is at the end of a college diploma, not the journeyman’s certification that comes at the end of an apprenticeship program in the trades.
Last year, women’s share of the construction workforce was 9.1 percent of 10.7 million workers, according to the Department of Labor. The number of women workers increased 81 percent from 1985 to 2007, but dropped with the loss of 2.5 million jobs during the Great Recession. Since 2011, the number of women in construction has risen nearly 37 percent.
Finding those numbers for Iowa is problematic, so we looked for a few examples in the construction industry.
In Urbandale, at the new headquarters of the Des Moines Electrical Apprenticeship program, about 300 people a year are learning about the various aspects of the trade and earning a pretty decent living while they’re doing it.
And throughout the region, a range of organizations are sending ambassadors into high schools and middle schools to encourage young people to choose a job in the industry. The groups include the ACE Mentor program that focuses on architecture, construction and engineering, the Iowa Chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women — whether you’re a broker, property manager, lawyer or lender, you’re touching the construction industry — and more.
When the Business Record hosted a series of panel discussions earlier this year on various sectors of commercial real estate, a chief concern was that a shortage of construction workers was causing a delay in some projects, driving up costs — along with materials — on all of them and acting as a headwind to an otherwise healthy market.
But there is another headwind within the industry, and that is the lack of women, particularly in the skilled trades.
“It’s the diversity that makes us great,” said Stephen Hansen, director of the electrical apprenticeship program. He is quick to point out that the diversity is missing within his trade.
As he has with the Boy Scouts, Hansen is attempting to visit local Girl Scouts chapters to pitch a career in the electrical trades. It’s the same pitch he makes at job fairs and in front of any group that will have him.
He frequently is accompanied by Kayla White, a third-year apprentice who works for Waldinger Corp. in Des Moines. She bucked the conventional thinking that in her opinion has kept women out of the construction trades — “it’s a man’s world” — and now proclaims, “It’s not just a man’s world anymore.”
Unfortunately, the statistics and White’s own experience suggest otherwise. She frequently is the only woman on a job site. Out of the 300 apprentices enrolled in the program’s three sessions, nine are women. Of the 292 applicants in 2017, five were women; one enrolled.
White, her instructor, Heather Talbot, and first-year apprentice Kathy Landeros say it’s all about perception, the idea among women that construction is a man’s world of heavy lifting and dirty jobs.
They’ll beg to differ. Talbot has taught at the apprenticeship program for three years after working as an electrician for 15 years. Prior to that, she had other jobs, office worker and stay-at-home mom among them. She wanted better pay and benefits.
“It was time to go make some money,” Talbot said. “I was tired of being poor.” Her ex-husband, an electrician, suggested the trade, especially low voltage electricity — fiber optics, computers, security systems — because the men have done “all of the hard work ahead of you.” She scoffs at the idea that she has a light-duty specialty. If she needed to lift a 90-pound spool of electrical cable, she did it the man’s way — with the help of another person.
The pay and benefits and challenge of the work are what have attracted Landeros and White to the trade.
Landeros inherited a nail salon from an aunt, but didn’t find the work very stimulating. Highly proficient in math, she tried accounting. Turns out it can be darn boring to sit at a desk all day.
She is employed by Baker Electric and when she is not taking classes at the apprenticeship program, she works at one of Microsoft Corp.’s data centers in West Des Moines. Employers pay for the apprenticeship program, so she has no education expenses. That is true of all apprentices, regardless of the trade. Apprentices might pay for books, but that’s it.
Once she is a certified journeyman electrician, Landeros might start her own company, but for now she likes the ever-changing nature of the work and “I continue to be mentally challenged with something I like to do.”
So far as the heavy lifting, she points out that she is a 5-foot-tall Asian woman and “can’t pick up half of the stuff” that the men lift. On the other hand, there are pallet jacks and other tools to help tote heavy items such as conduit.
The pay and benefits are better than with any other job she has worked. So far as seeing other women on the job site, that probably isn’t going to happen. “On a job site of 200 people, I’m the one female,” she said.
White is a single mom with two kids. She decided to become an electrician because of the pay and benefits. (We should point out that you don’t just decide to become an electrician apprentice. You have to pass an aptitude test; it is a big plus to have strong math skills.) She also discovered that her hours were pretty normal, typically eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. Besides the pay and benefits, that’s another advantage for a working parent.
She also is pressing to get more women into the trade, accompanying Hansen to job fairs — women don’t need to talk to “old male Stephen Hansen,” he said — and working with other groups, including Iowa Workforce Development, to find ways to encourage women to enter the construction industry.
The issue of heavy lifting comes up with some frequency among the women. White pointed out that “you work your way into the strength to do the job.”
“You don’t need to bench 200 pounds to be on the job,” she said.
At McGough Construction, the St. Paul, Minn., firm that has an office in Ankeny and does a range of work across the state, Jennifer Radniecki wants it understood that her job is not a skilled trade. She graduated from Minnesota State University with a degree in construction management. She holds the trades in high regard. “I don’t want to claim their skill set,” she said.
What she does want to do is press for women to enter the industry, regardless whether they are architects, engineers, crane operators or electricians.
It’s not surprising then that she takes photographs of all the women on job sites. More often than not, the women are designers, engineers, other managers.
Radniecki’s “plan B” was to be a crane operator like her father and her grandfather.
If the construction management gig doesn’t work out, she’ll learn a trade before going back to college. She wouldn’t want to rack up $60,000 in college debt when she could enter the trades and earn $60,000 to $120,000, “depending on your skill set.”
“You can make just as much as you can with a college degree and you don’t have that underwater basket weaving degree,” Radniecki said.
Working under state regulations in Minnesota, McGough has set a course to bring more women on board, said business development manager Annette Renaud.
The Minnesota standard is that 6 percent of skilled workforce on a job site must be women and 32 percent should be minority. Iowa doesn’t have a similar requirement, but has launched a volunteer effort called the Epic Corporate Challenge to bring more women into the workforce.
Renaud said McGough is looking for ways to be involved in that effort.
Meanwhile, the company participates in the National Association of Women in Construction, the Iowa Women in Architecture, Commercial Real Estate Women and the Association of Women Contractors to promote women in the construction industry.
“We do see that as tremendous potential to fill the gap, not only on the trades side but also on the project management side,” Renaud said.
Women make up 31 percent of McGough’s Des Moines regional office staff and half of its leadership group in Iowa; companywide, women hold 22 percent of corporate leadership positions.
If nothing else, bringing more women onboard makes good business sense.
“You’re working more with women on the customer side, you’re working more with women on the subcontractor side, on the design side, and even on the construction side,” Renaud said. “The customer across the table is looking different.”
Come on in
As construction industry looks for workers, the pay is good and it’s cool inside the work trailer
Regardless of the job sector, Greater Des Moines seems to have a worker shortage. Office buildings are being designed as weapons in the war to recruit workers. An expensive water trail is proposed for downtown Des Moines, again to fire a shot across the bow of other cities hoping to boost their workforce.
Those projects need people to build them, and, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a shortage of construction workers as well in Greater Des Moines. Everybody’s talking about it.
In January, the Business Record hosted a series of roundtables to talk about commercial real estate, the hot sectors, issues affecting development, even ways to avoid running afoul in a healthy market.
A panel that discussed land development spent some time talking about the challenge of finding construction workers, why a shortage exists in an industry where six-figure incomes are not uncommon, and how long it will take to bring more workers onto job sites.
Members of the panel were Aimee Staudt, vice president and director of development at Knapp Properties Inc.; Dan Dutcher, director of community and economic development for the city of Waukee; Mike Ludwig, planning administrator for the city of Des Moines; and Joe Pietruszynski, vice president of development for Hubbell Realty Co.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation regarding the worker shortage in the construction industry. If the wages aren’t convincing enough, maybe the lure of a cooling trailer on site in the middle of summer will do.
You have mentioned the worker shortage as one of the headwinds to development. How did we get to this point, and how will we solve the problem?
I think a lot of workers ended up leaving the construction industry during the last downturn, because there simply weren’t any jobs for them. So they ended up either getting new skills or finding new jobs or starting their own businesses, and a lot of those people just did not come back. There has been a lot of media attention about skilled trades and just trying to get more young people involved in that, trying to get the understanding that you don’t necessarily need to get a four-year college degree. I know Hubbell has made a significant contribution to that.
Rachel Flint, our vice president of Hubbell Homes, is making this her calling to work with local school districts to try to encourage kids to go out into the construction trades. A lot of people think that the path to success and wealth is a college education, but many times, people graduating colleges in certain degree areas are starting or working a good portion of their career earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
With giant loans from college.
Well, if learning a certain skill set — for example, as an electrician — you can start out life with minimal debt through your education requirements and easily earn $80,00 to $100,000 a year in that trade and get a massive jump start over a college education. So we are really pushing that there is a big future in the construction trades and we see that trend, the need, continuing not only for the near term, but into the distant future. We kind of put our focus as a society on what I would call more business-related jobs that are in the office rather than the trades in the field.
How long will it take to change that attitude?
I think it takes a generation.
We’re overcoming 20-plus years of emphasis that a college degree was the only way to make a living. My father was an industrial arts teacher in high school, and they used to have a home construction program. They built the house and sold the house during the school year. They dropped that program and everybody’s focus was that you have to have four years of a foreign language and prepare to go on to a four-year college. There are at least one or two generations that we have missed. From a homebuilder standpoint, it’s the same as a homeowner standpoint. If you try and get a contractor today to come out and give you a bid on a renovation project, good luck getting a call back on things. It’s that tight. We just did a project on our house, and we had to be patient. We waited over a year for that contractor to be available to do some work.
What’s the training time, if you took somebody right out of high school, before you could put them on the job?
The commercial trades are a little bit different than the residential trades, but from a commercial perspective, if you’re going through the labor union process, you start out as an apprentice and you can get real-world job experience very early on and you work through that whole process and gradually kind of work your way up through journeyman.
What type of salary would you be making during a career like that?
I’m not sure what the exact salaries are, but what I do know is a lot of companies, especially those in the electric industry, are paying for that apprenticeship.
And if they start at Central Campus or wherever with their classes while they’re in high school, they can get a lot of that out of the way and go right into an apprentice program, and that’s been what’s been really important about Hubbell’s investment in assisting with that, that trades program (the Skilled Trades Academy), has been to help build that base earlier.
It’s going to take quite a bit of time to do that. I agree with what Mike said. I’ll just kind of go back to my experience. I was a product of, graduated in the early ’70s and went right to college, and probably the best experience I had was I worked in the summer for a homebuilder and those are the skills that have stayed with me, probably a lot more than what some of the things I learned in college. But you don’t see kids being exposed to that anymore. I can remember taking industrial arts when I was in junior high and you couldn’t touch the power tools, so I didn’t really know how. I used a hand plane to take a board from about this down to about that. But that was my whole semester project. It takes a long time to make the switch over.
I know we’re working with the Apex School (Waukee Innovation and Learning Center), which has probably been more slanted for kids going to college and exposing them to technology and software and architecture and some of the things. But they’re doing a class this next semester, which is more on the building trades, and they want to get kids out that are juniors and seniors in high school and expose them to some of these building projects, expose them to some of the opportunities that they would have.
But again, it’s going to take some time. I think in the short run, you’re going to see the pie is only so big here. There are only so many construction workers. You’ll see them shifting from one big project to another, or there’s going to have to be an influx of workers from other areas.
Let’s be honest. We steal them from each other.
Well, there are definitely projects that have caught on to that. I know some of the larger data centers, I mean, they put in cooling trailers for people in the summer for workers. They put in different amenities on these job sites because they want people to want to work there.