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Wonder Women

BY LISA KOPOCHINSKI

Long considered a male career, women have made strides in the construction over the past 30 years and continue to do so.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of women employed in the U.S. construction industry grew substantially — by 81 percent from 1985 to 2007. While this is definitely good news, what isn’t so great is that due to a loss of over 2.5 million construction jobs from 2007 to 2010, there has been a sharp decline of women working.

While only 9 percent of U.S. construction workers are women, there are still approximately 800,000 women workers employed in construction primarily in managerial, professional and administrative capacities, with another approximately 200,000 or so employed in production occupations, such as laborers, electricians and plumbers, for example.

Though it is no longer unusual for women to pursue construction careers as it once was, that doesn’t mean it has been without its challenges along the way.

Constructor magazine recent sat down with three amazing women in the industry to get their take on what it means to be in a predominantly male industry, the obstacles they’ve faced in their journey and whether they would choose the same career again. Spoiler alert: They would.

“I love this industry, have learned so much and have had the opportunity to work with amazing people.” ~ Brynn Huneke, director, diversity and inclusion, grassroots, AGC of America

A big thank you to the following women for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk about their work and what they love about the construction industry: Lorraine Bergman, owner and CEO of Caliente Construction in Tempe, Arizona, an Arizona Builders’ Alliance member; Tracy Hart, president and CEO, Tarlton Corporation in St. Louis, a member of multiple AGC chapters; and Brynn Huneke, director of diversity and inclusion, grassroots, at AGC of America in Washington, D.C. Here is what they had to say:

WHAT MADE YOU CONSIDER A CAREER IN CONSTRUCTION?
Tracy: I didn’t consider a career in construction when I graduated from school. I wanted to work for a PR or marketing company. My father, then Tarlton’s chairman, suggested I look at marketing for large construction companies. I landed a job at Pepper Construction Company in Chicago as a marketing coordinator and loved it. Five years later, my husband came home with a job offer in St. Louis, where Tarlton is located. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to join Tarlton at that time and to continue building my career.

Brynn: Construction wasn’t an industry that I started out pursuing. It is really by chance that I ended up working for AGC. However, I stayed in the industry because of the people. Our members are genuine, kind, smart and hardworking.

Lorraine: When my husband, Tom, and I started Caliente Construction together, I had my own career and never envisioned that I would be directly involved in operating the company. However, when he became ill in 2004, we both knew our choices were to sell the company or have me take on a more active role. While the circumstances of my entering the field of construction were both heartbreaking and challenging, I must admit the decision to assume leadership of the company has been a blessing. I love this industry, have learned so much and have had the opportunity to work with amazing people.

IF YOU WERE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, WOULD YOU STILL CHOOSE A CAREER IN THIS FIELD?
Tracy: I would absolutely choose a career in construction again. The people in this industry are amazing. From the field to the office, they are talented, energized and great to be around, and I don’t think that is just at Tarlton. Our work is tangible, so we see the results and can share them with our families. We work as a team — none of us is more important than all of us. If there is one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to get more technical education, or to have pursued an MBA after college graduation.

Lorraine: If I ever had the opportunity to start over, I would have obtained a degree in construction management and started my career in construction. I love the industry and challenges we face. I learn something new every day, and I thrive in the continually changing environment. Women add a new dimension to the industry and bring a different perspective to how they manage projects and people.

HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED ANY PROBLEMS IN JUGGLING YOUR WORK LIFE WITH YOUR FAMILY/HOME LIFE?
Tracy: Of course. I would be shocked if there’s anyone who hasn’t. I found that the further my career advanced, the more I needed to delegate in both areas. That said, I also had to be clear with my priorities — family first, work second.

Lorraine: This has always been a challenge for me. I constantly strive to do a better job on finding the right balance!

WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS STORY?
Tracy: Perhaps the success story that was a turning point for me was when we were awarded a Nordstrom contract to build their first store in Missouri. This was a relationship I had cultivated for sevenplus years, and I was thrilled when they deviated from their traditional stable of contractors to work with Tarlton. I think this big win helped me with my confidence going forward. On a larger scale, I consider the greatest success story to be the growth I’ve witnessed of other team members at Tarlton. I work with people who have grown significantly in their careers and as people. I feel truly blessed to be surrounded by many of them.

Brynn: The thing I’m most proud of is launching AGC’s Diversity & Inclusion Council. As the largest construction trade association in the U.S., it is critical that we build an environment where all companies involved in the construction industry feel like they have a champion in AGC. While the council is less than a year old, and we still have a long way to go, incorporating diversity and inclusion into the association’s strategic initiatives is a step in the right direction.

IN WHAT IS SEEN AS A MALE-DOMINATED FIELD, HAVE YOU HAD ANY TROUBLE ADVANCING? WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU FACED?
Tracy: There have been times when I was told I should be a “good mom” and stay home. I have had people say that they prefer “women stay in the kitchen.” I have walked into AGC conventions where I was one of a handful of women among a few thousand men. One can choose to focus on these differences and challenges, or one can focus on the similarities and opportunities. I choose the latter. We all have a passion to build. It is what binds us together and circumvents the other biases.

“The people in this industry are amazing. Our work is tangible, so we see the results and can share them with our families.” ∼ Tracy Hart, president and CEO, Tarlton Corporation

Lorraine: When I took over Caliente after Tom’s passing in 2005, being a woman in this male-dominated industry appeared to be a challenge and many believed the company would not survive under my leadership. However, 12 years later, the company has experienced phenomenal growth and is more successful than ever. Bringing people on board who were experts in the industry and learning everything I could from them were the strategies I used to build the business. When I look back, being a woman was not the issue, but rather my limited industry experience, which was offset by education and perseverance.

WITH THE CURRENT WORKFORCE SHORTAGE, DO YOU SEE MORE WOMEN ENTERING THE FIELD?
Tracy: At Tarlton, every candidate for employment sees that women have the opportunity to take on a leadership role in any area of the company. This is a strategic advantage. With the challenges we face in attracting people into the workforce, we want to be the best place for everyone to work.

Brynn: I would love to see more women enter the field, and I hope that as we continue to promote a career in construction that women will consider it.

Lorraine: I believe the construction industry, as a whole, needs to do a better job of educating both young women and men about construction careers. As far as female candidates are concerned, women in construction have typically been in a support or marketing and business development role. Caliente has focused on hiring and developing women, and we actually have more female project engineers and assistant project managers than we do males in these positions. We also have several women on our leadership team. However, qualified female candidates for positions such as project managers and field positions such as superintendents are by far outnumbered by males.

One of our strategies for increasing women hires is to provide support to women who are enrolled in the construction program at Arizona State University. As a founding member of Advancing Women in Construction (AWIC), a program associated with Arizona State University, we actively recruit from the university.

WHAT ARE EFFECTIVE RECRUITMENT EFFORTS FOR WOMEN?
Tracy: It’s important to show women that they have as much of an opportunity as their male counterparts. More importantly, treat them as you would anyone else — as an important member of the team.

Lorraine: Being a woman-owned construction company is in itself a recruiting tool. Additionally, potential candidates always ask us what roles women have in the company and how many women are in the company. The fact that we have so many women in leadership and operations is definitely a strong recruiting tool. Our involvement in AWIC and other organizations such as Women’s Business Enterprise Council is an effective platform for reaching women who may be interested in a construction career. However, offering a workplace atmosphere that offers worklife balance and an opportunity to advance in one’s career is a recruiting strategy that has broad appeal.

Brynn: The most important thing a company can do to recruit and retain women is build and then promote an inclusive workplace culture. This extends beyond women to all potential employees. Yes, pay and benefits are important and can certainly influence somebody’s decision when looking for potential employers, but culture is what will ultimately keep somebody from leaving once you’ve successfully recruited them. Somebody who feels undervalued, unheard or unsafe working for your company will not stay for very long. And, as an industry dominated by men, an inclusive culture is particularly important for women who will almost certainly be part of the minority group at the company.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WOMEN CONSIDERING A CAREER IN THIS FIELD?
Brynn: It’s a great field to work in. There are so many different career paths you can take in the construction industry; it’s not all manual labor jobs. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and, if you can, test out different trades to find one that interests you.

Tracy: Go for it! There are opportunities in every aspect of construction. We currently have women in many nontraditional roles. Look for a company that has advanced other women. Gut counts when you are evaluating your employer. Seek out male and female mentors.

Lorraine: While you may not be an expert in every aspect of your industry, educate yourself and surround yourself with people who have the skills and knowledge that complement your own and trust their decisions. Have confidence in yourself and never be afraid to ask others for their advice, solutions or opinion. Most people in the industry enjoy supporting others by sharing their knowledge and being a mentor.

This is the first in a three-part series on women in construction.

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