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Michigan Program Introduces Women to Construction Opportunities

BY KATIE KUEHNER-HEBERT

Construction companies facing increasingly tough workforce shortage problems are finding innovative ways to excite more people into the industry.

PHOTO CREDIT: RITA BROWN, PROJECT ACCELERATE!

A program in Michigan is doing just that, Project: Accelerate!, provides up-and-coming women a window into the many opportunities available at all professional levels within the industry.

Rita Brown, president of steel detailing company BCC+ in Pontiac, Michigan and a workforce development consultant, founded the program with the support of the National Association of Women in Construction.

“It was in reaction to some of the market conditions going on. I didn’t see many positions available for women once they were past a certain age, even if they have decades of experience,” says Brown, a director of the North Central Region of NAWIC.

Other industry partners, including AGC members, are actively involved with Project: Accelerate! Brown serves on the board of AGC of Michigan and is incoming chair of the AGC of America’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Part of the BUILD Initiative, a collection of industry specific programs focused on women and girls, Project: Accelerate! (#PA) is not a training program, she says, but an exposure program designed to reinforce knowledge, educate and facilitate access to opportunities for women within the construction industry. What’s notable is that the programs are fully supported by industry, trades and business community. For the past five years, 174 women have graduated from Project: Accelerate!, covering a wide demographic range.

“About half of the participants have limited or no exposure to the construction industry, and the other half are already employed in the industry,” Brown says. For the latter, “we want to help them be better at their job and better understand the opportunities available to them if they move around in the industry, building on their own strengths and interests.”

The seven-week program is conducted annually in various locations across Michigan. Women selected to be in the program attend one day a week, eight hours a day, and participate in two to six modules a day, consisting of lectures, labs and on-site experiences, with expert speakers during lunch.

A TASTE OF THE INDUSTRY

The hands-on experiences reflect the different areas of work and provide insight into the kinds of skills needed to be developed for success, providing participants “a flavor” of what is required for whatever that particular work is about, Brown says.

“Several years ago a woman who was working as a cake decorator participated in the program, and she realized her skills were similar to those required as a welder,” she says. “She really appreciated learning that she could go from being a minimum wage employee to being someone who could join a union, learn a skilled trade like welding, and then eventually make a six-figure income and be that support her young family needed, on her own.”

At program completion, participants are given individual career and business counseling by mentors in the industry and connected to appropriate next stage programs, apprenticeships, accredited training centers, employment, career counseling, degree or certificate programs.

Brown emphasizes that Project: Accelerate! doesn’t focus solely on entry-level positions, but about opportunities for women at all professional levels, “including being a better CEO.”

“We have women with all levels of experience and education — from those who just got their high school diplomas to women with double masters degrees,” she says. “The two things they all have in common are that they are all dedicated to professional development, and they identify as women.”

PROMOTING DIVERSITY, BUILDING A WORKFORCE

Construction companies dedicated to the professional development of women also benefit, Brown says, who co-authored the Diversity and Inclusion Council’s white paper, “The Business Case For Diversity & Inclusion In The Construction Industry.”

The AGC white paper cites a McKinsey study, which found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have financial returns above national industry means, and companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 33 percent more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.

Project: Accelerate! (#PA) is not a training program, but an exposure program designed to reinforce knowledge, educate and facilitate access to opportunities for women within the construction industry.

Programs like Project: Accelerate! can help connect more talented women to firms, according to the white paper.

Commercial Contracting Corp. (CCC) in Auburn Hills, Michigan, the fourth largest general contractor in Michigan, has been a “staunch supporter” for Project: Accelerate!, providing sponsorship, presenters and now serving as the Metro Detroit area lead for programming.

CCC is an AGC of Michigan member company, with President and CEO Steve Fragnoli serving on the board. Anthony S. Fanone, CCC’s director of operations, is a BUILD Initiative advisory board member and assists in lending expertise for the Project: Accelerate! and Project Ignite programs.

“Before we knew about Project: Accelerate!, we had subcontracted Rita’s steel detailing firm, so we had already developed a rapport with her,” Fanone says. “When she approached us about the program, we knew it was something we could support and be a part of.”

The company helps with funding of the program, and CCC also hosts a course for a day about estimating.

“We teach the participants about how our industry, and specifically Commercial Contracting estimates, as well as letting them know about different resources and strategies for estimating,” he says. “Then we take them on project tours so they can see construction personnel in action, how a jobsite operates and how the estimate got us there. We introduce them to the project team and sometimes we ask the project owner to participate as well.”

In 2017 and 2018, CCC was involved in Project: Accelerate! programs with Fiat–Chrysler Automobiles and DTE, and invited two women senior buyers from their respective purchasing departments to speak during lunch about career opportunities within the auto and energy industries. The two women also spoke about their own path in their careers and “shared some high and low points and what got them through to their roles today,” Fanone says.

“The reason why our company is involved with this program is because in southern Michigan there is a workforce shortage in the construction industry — both for blue collar and white collar jobs,” he says. “So the more people who get excited about the construction industry, then ultimately the better we will be as an industry.”

Lee Graham, executive director, Operating Engineers 324 Labor Management Education Committee, says that Project: Accelerate! and programs like it, are so valuable to both Operating Engineers 324 and the industry as a whole.

“First and foremost, it introduces people to our careers that otherwise may not have known about the opportunities available, Graham says. “It is essential that we continue to diversify our industry and make sure that the doors are open to everyone.”

Project: Accelerate! gives women first-hand experience in these opportunities, and if that was its only accomplishment, “it would be magnificent,” he says.

“But it is not — Project: Accelerate! also helps instill confidence and a knowledge base in its participants,” Graham says. “These assets are key fundamentals to a long career in our industry. It helps ensure success and accomplishment, and for that, we are also exceptionally grateful.”

Michael P. Smith, vice president, AGC of Michigan, says that there has been a growth in the number of women hired for on-site and managerial jobs by member firms, as well as in the number of firms led by women that have become AGC members.

“We see more women working the trades on jobsites as well as those serving as project managers, superintendents and safety professionals,” Smith says. “We also have many member firms founded by and/or led by women like Aristeo, Benkari, Eagle Specialties, Marble Mechanical and Paige Construction. In fact, our 2019 chairperson is a woman, Eileen McCarthy of McCarthy & Smith.”

McCarthy is in the Michigan Construction Hall of Fame at Ferris State University, the first woman inducted. Jennifer Boezwinkle, executive vice president of Rockford Construction, is a new AGC of Michigan board member, serving along with Brown. “AGC of Michigan has long recognized the valuable contributions women could make to our industry and has been working to get more women to choose a construction career for more than 20 years,” Smith says. “Staff has been vigilant in reaching out to women of all ages across the state promoting the benefits of a construction career. We’re proud of the success realized so far but there’s a long way to go.”