A movement is building to get women into construction
By Katie Johnston Globe Staff, The Boston Globe, Updated January 2, 2023, 3:59 p.m.
Sasirin Suriyamongkol is a third-year apprentice in Local 103′s five-year telecommunications program at the Joint Apprentice Training Center. In Massachusetts, more than 10 percent of participants in building trades union apprenticeship programs are women. MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF
At the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the gender of the union’s membership is baked right into its name.
And at IBEW Local 103 in Boston, 95 percent of the workers who retire every year are men. But change is underway. For the past two years, nearly 16 percent of first-year apprentices have been women — a record high — many of them women of color.
In Massachusetts, more than 10 percent of participants in building trades union apprenticeship programs are women, almost triple the national average and the highest rate in the nation, according to the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues, a local construction industry collaborative. And more than 20 percent of the students in construction programs at vocational technical schools in Massachusetts are women, according to the group.
Nationwide, the number of women in construction jobs has risen by nearly 50 percent in the past decade, and women now make up a record-high 14 percent of the construction workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics survey. Latinas account for much of that growth, according to a Washington Post analysis that found the number of Latina construction workers increased by 117 percent over the past six years.
Currently, the construction workforce in Massachusetts is still overwhelmingly male, but with large numbers of women in the pipeline, and efforts increasing to get women into the trades, their share is expected to keep growing.
The Biden administration recently announced an initiative to get 1 million more women into construction in the next 10 years, which would nearly double the number in the industry at a time when labor shortages abound and major investments in semiconductor manufacturing and high-speed internet access are expected to create 200,000 construction jobs.
Sasirin Suriyamongkol, right, talking to her colleague, Tisha Tanakunsap, at the Joint Apprentice Training Center.MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF
In October, the Greater Boston Building Trades Unions held the first-ever Women Build Boston conference highlighting local efforts to diversify the construction industry. The labor association’s Building Pathways nonprofit — created by former leader and current US Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh to recruit more underrepresented groups into construction — hosts Tradeswomen Tuesday events for women interested in construction careers and is working on a pilot program to connect construction workers who start their workdays early with childcare providers willing to open before 6 a.m.
Construction also comes with an added benefit for women. Not only do jobs pay well and have free apprenticeships, it has one of the smallest gender wage gaps of any industry, with women making about 97 percent of what men make, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Across all occupations, women make about 83 cents to every dollar earned by men.
In unions, pay scales are locked in, providing “guaranteed equity,” as Renee Dozier puts it. Dozier, a master electrician who is a business agent for IBEW Local 103, helped build the Encore Boston Harbor casino along with nearly 500 women, thought to be the largest number of women on a construction crew in US history. “It was a beautiful thing,” she said. Sasirin Suriyamongkol is also helping diversify the ranks. Suriyamongkol came to Boston from Thailand in 2015 to improve her English and work as an au pair. She had only intended to stay for a year, but then she met her future husband, an ironworker, who encouraged her to get into the trades. Now a third-year apprentice in Local 103′s five-year telecommunications program, Suriyamongkol is on track to make more than $46 an hour when she becomes a certified technician.
Suriyamongkol, 33, grew up helping her father do the electrical wiring in their house, but her parents didn’t think that type of work was suitable for girls, so she went to college for graphic design instead. Now, however, Suriyamongkol is convinced she’s found her calling. “Doing what I’m doing right now is a dream come true,” she said.
Convincing parents that construction work is right for their daughters can be a tough sell, noted Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. The council is involved in the Massachusetts Girls in Trades program, which works with vocational schools to introduce girls to the construction industry. Not only do many parents want their children to go to college, he said, those with daughters are concerned about how they’ll be treated in a male-dominated profession. The attitude is often, “I don’t want my daughter going into the construction industry where she’s going to get harassed,” Callahan said.
The men Savy Francis works with have been incredibly supportive, the 39-year-old licensed pipefitter said. Their conversations are more about recipes and grocery stores than “locker room talk,” she said, but she knows tradeswomen who have felt isolated and belittled by male coworkers. When the pandemic hit, Francis, who makes $61.75 an hour working on heating and cooling systems, helped launch the Facebook group Boston Union Trade Sisters to give women a safe space and “another sister to lean on.” The group now has about 800 members.
Teacher Tom Spellman explaining the order of wires in a wiring block to (left to right) Sasirin Suriyamongkol, Tisha Tanakunsap, and Chloe Fay at the Joint Apprentice Training Center. MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF
The effort to get more women into construction goes beyond unions. The Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts started a program last year to expose a more diverse array of high school and vo-tech students to the construction industry. About a quarter of the 200 students who’ve taken job site tours so far were girls, she said.
Women are “severely underrepresented” in the trades as well as in more white-collar jobs in management, marketing, and engineering, said Marion Jones, the commercial construction association’s new — and first-ever — director of workforce development and industry inclusion. There’s even a need for drone pilots to film job sites.
“Construction isn’t just about putting on a hard hat,” she said.
Shannon Connaughton didn’t consider going into the trades when she graduated from Mansfield High School. She went to college to become a teacher and ended up dropping out and becoming a nanny. But when her friends started settling down and buying houses, she realized her under-the-table pay with no benefits wasn’t sustainable.
Her dad, a union carpenter, encouraged her to become a plumber or an electrician. Now Connaughton, 29, who lives in Dorchester, is a second-year electrical apprentice. The biggest obstacle she’s encountered as a woman in the field, she said, has been finding protective gear that fits her 5-foot-3 frame. Most of it is “ginormous,” she said.
Still, Connaughton has been pleasantly surprised by the industry’s growing diversity: “I feel like the trades used to be kind of just white dudes, and now I look around and it’s everybody.”