HOW ONE LONGTIME FEMALE IN THE CONSTRUCTION FIELD IS INSPIRING OTHERS TO RESHAPE THE INDUSTRY
BY DAN HYMAN
Polly Friendshuh knows how it looks: the Academic Dean of Construction Sciences & Business Technology at Minneapolis’ Dunwoody College of Technology, an AGC of Minnesota member, stands five-foot-two, weighs roughly 110 pounds and is in her 50s. “So yeah, I don’t exactly look like what one would think of as a construction worker,” she says with a laugh.
Point taken — but over the past 33 years, Friendshuh has undoubtedly made quite the career for herself in the construction field. And now, she’s eager to encourage more females and other underrepresented communities to join her. “It’s slow to make those changes, and I wish I could say it’s all fixed, but I’m certainly doing my best,” Friendshuh says of her quest to di-versify her chosen industry.
Friendshuh has seen construction evolve over the years. In the late-1980s, when she first en-tered the construction profession, Friendshuh says she was one of the “very, very few women in the field. Honestly, I probably didn’t see another woman for five years after I started,” she says.
To hear her tell it, going into construction was to her a great equalizer: where many profes-sions still had great pay disparities between men and women, construction — and specifically electricians, where she first started as an apprentice and moved her way up — was “an op-portunity for us women to make the same as men,” she says. “It paid well, I could make money right away, and I could support my family that way,” she recalls of her decision to en-ter the field.
More than three decades later, Friendshuh says there’s still work to do: similar to when she first started, Friendshuh estimates it remains far harder for females to move up the ranks in the construction industry than their male counterparts. “Especially, if you’re in the field, to move into a project management or foreman role is a challenge for women,” she adds. “There’s a lot of frustration with that. It’s like ‘I can run circles around you.’ That’s one of the hurdles because there’s still a ceiling there. Sure, women are going to get in the industry, they’re going to stay working. That’s not an issue. But if they want to advance, it can be challenging.”
Now, in her role as dean, Friendshuh is hoping to enact meaningful change to combat this disparity: She and Dunwoody regularly work with the National Association of Women in Con-struction (NAWIC); she’s also making major strides to bring other underrepresented popula-tions into construction. To date, she’s held events with Construct Tomorrow, and is also en-gaged with a major Minneapolis-St. Paul light rail project that, at its core, is aiming to en-courage inner-city workers to enter construction in order to help with its completion. Friendshuh also says she’s partnered with various local Twin Cities agencies, including Bolder Options and Lake Street Works, to further encourage students of color to consider the con-struction profession. “We’ve been trying to really bring underrepresented populations into the industry,” she says. “I want to bring awareness to the wide breadth of jobs available in the industry.”
When asked what she emphasizes to prospective construction students, Friendshuh points to the multitude of options available in the field. “Because traditional construction is just one area,” she says. She points to a slew of former Dunwoody Construction Sciences & Business Technology students who have gone to become project managers or hold mainte-nance-related jobs — some who even have traveled to Antartica to maintain equipment.
“There’s such a wide range within that industry. You’re never stuck in one spot. This is a ca-reer choice — it’s not a job. This is a profession that you’re going into.”
Looking ahead, Friendshuh remains laser-focused on progress in the construction industry and, of course, making sure Dunwoody students are entering – and excelling – in the field.
“At the end of the day, my students are my customers, industry is my customer,” she says. “So it’s my job to make sure students are getting hired and they have the skills necessary to be very productive and successful out in the industry.”
She’s certainly doing her part.
Dan Hyman is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has written articles for publications including Rolling Stone, New York Times, Esquire, Playboy, ELLE, GQ, Men’s Journal, NY Mag’s Vulture, The Chicago Tribune and many more.