Dana Havas

(WOMENSENEWS)–Hundreds of women lined up in the rain outside New York’s Pace University Wednesday night to hear about finding work in fields that most had never dreamed of entering.

As the sounds of hammers hitting nails rang out, women got a glimpse of what life might be like on a construction site. They caught sight of electrical installation and surveyors’ tools and watched female workers fit a kitchen exhauststack. And, they got a chance to meet and greetthe women who have chosen to make their living with their physical strength and their skilled hands.

Over the next 13 years, thousands of jobs will be created in Lower Manhattan as the city seeks to repair the damage wrought by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. More than $10 billion in federal funds, insurance proceeds and other sources is slated for the efforts that will require massive amounts of labor. With worker shortages in the skilled construction trades–which include electrical workers, carpenters and plumbers

–and state and federal quotas for hiring women in government-funded work, organizations across the city are trying to make sure that women find out about and apply for the often high-paying jobs that will be available.

"We want to make sure the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan is done by a diverse workforce that is reflective of the diversity of New York City," said Amy Peterson, vice president of memorial, cultural and civic development for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which sponsored the free informational conference to introduce women to careers in the construction industry.

Other event sponsors included the governments of the city and state of New York, Nontraditional Employment for Women, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Building Trade Employer’s Association and the General Contractors Association, all based in New York City

Not an Easy Sell

In the state of New York, 52 percent of paid workers are female. And, according to the National Women’s Business Council, the number of women-owned construction firms has grown 35 percent between 1997 and 2002.

Nevertheless, despite the much larger than expected turnout for the evening event–about 700 women attended the event–luring women to these skilled trades may be a tough sell.

Women have not traditionally thought of or been encouraged to enter such fields, said Francis X. McArdle, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York, Inc. Even though more universities and training programs begin to qualify women in these nontraditional trades, employers are still battling to attract women to meet federal and state contract guidelines that 6.9 percent of the workforce be female.

Some 26 years after these goals were put in place, less than 3 percent of workers in the skilled construction trades are women. In 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up 2.75 percent of workers in the construction and extraction occupations, down from 3.03 percent in 2000.

The Allure of the Outdoors, High Wages

Adding to the rush to attract women to construction is the worker shortage that’s been facing the industry for the last four years.

"Companies are looking to women to fill the gaps," said Dede Hughes, an executive vice president at the National Association of Women in Construction in a phone interview from Fort Worth, Texas. "Women are also doing a good job. That is part of the acceptance. Women are fulfilling a need and doing well and, with more acceptance, more women are seeing construction as a positive career move."

Perhaps most attractive, says Hughes, is the high wages and the opportunities for women who do not want to sit behind a desk. Because the jobs are unionized, wages for men and women are the same.

"It’s a wide open field and we want women to get out there and know it’s a viable career."

Demonstrating her work for the crowd at Pace, Cynthia "Torie" Aldrich from the New York City District Council of Carpenters, said she is convinced it is a good time for women to enter the skilled trades.

Aldrich was one of the early women to enter the construction field. She began her first job as a carpenter in New York City 21 years ago.

"I finally got the job I wanted," she said. Having worked as a bookkeeper, Aldrich decided she wasn’t cut out for life behind a desk. "I was a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl."

Today, Aldrich sports a t-shirt that reads "A women’s place is in the union." She says that over the years, women have become less skeptical of entering the field and more and more are following in her footsteps. Those are good steps to take, she says. Now 50, Aldrich is a home-owner in Pennsylvania. Most importantly, she says, "I love my job."

Tough, Dangerous Work

Indeed, most of the women on hand to demonstrate their trades were happy with their career choices in more ways than one. The jobs are unionized, so the money and benefits are good.

When Marge Olsen, a demonstrator representing the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 15 first began working as surveyor 18 years ago, she made $8 per hour. Today, at 41, she makes $43 an hour plus an additional $18.50 per hour in benefits. She’s worked in trenches, in the mud and in tunnels 800 feet underwater. The work is tough and dangerous and no one denies it.

During a panel discussion, the speakers did their best to point out the flipside.

"If you are going to work, you might as well work hard and make money," said Susan Hayes, the president and chief executive of Cauldwell Wingate Company, a Manhattan based construction management firm. Her statement drew applause from the women who packed the auditorium at the university.

Part of Hayes’ role as the president of the board of the Nontraditional Employment for Women, a New York nonprofit, is to try to change the perception about women in these nontraditional fields. The group is devoted to training, placing, and advocating for women seeking work in construction and other skilled blue-collar trades. Its members were busy fielding questions and accepting applications throughout the night.

"These jobs are here for you," Hayes told the audience. "You have to figure out how to make it work for you and your family, so that you can achieve economic self sufficiency, and that–for women–equals equality."

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Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on economics and finance.