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Women in construction: women are making headway in the construction industry.

It used to be that construction was considered a man's job. Women were thought to be too weak to do the work, and didn't have the skills required to make their way in this most masculine of industries. And while there is still a shortage of women in the work force, more and more females are entering the construction field each year. Even more surprising, women are starting their own construction companies and doing as well, or even better, than the men who came before them.

According to the Center for Women's Business Research, between 1997 and 2004, privately held women owned firms began to diversify into different industries, including construction, which grew by 30 percent during that time period. In Alaska, women have also taken an interest in the field, though it is estimated that to date they make up only 2 percent to 4 percent of the state's construction work force.

"It's not easy breaking into a male-dominated work force, but we are definitely seeing more and more women doing this as a career, and being welcomed on the job site," said Kathy Dietrich, program coordinator, Alaska Works Partnership, Women in the Construction Trades. "Women are good at construction because they pay attention to detail, they have a good work ethic and people skills, and they know how to work as a team."


Now in its third year, the Alaska Works Partnership Apprenticeship Preparation Program provides women with the opportunity to learn about different types of construction jobs, and helps them to put together a portfolio that they can use to apply for apprenticeships. The nonprofit, which was originally designed to remove obstacles facing rural Alaskans, expanded to include those who, like women, also had difficulty getting into the trades.

During the four-week program, women learn about physical conditioning, construction math and job readiness, and also participate in hands-on training. "They spend time with electricians, ironworkers, pile drivers, sheet metal workers, plumbers and carpenters," explained Dietrich. "When they graduate, they have a lot of knowledge about what the different trades do, and a better idea of what they want to do and what they have the aptitude for."

The program has had its share of successes, including winning the EPIC (Exemplary Public Interest Contribution) award from the U.S. Department of Labor, and the placement of many of its students in union apprenticeship programs. The first class, which graduated in 2003, now has eight students enrolled in apprenticeships, and the 2005 class placed two students in carpentry apprenticeships even before they completed the course.

"We just couldn't be happier with how our students are doing," said Dietrich, of the course that rotates between Anchorage and Fairbanks. "Because so many people are retiring from the construction field, we know that people who can do the work will be in demand for quite some time. And women are really good at it."


When Anne Powers first entered the construction field, she had $100, a business license, and experience as an Army MP. Thirteen years later, she is the president of Powerhouse Inc., a Fairbanks sign manufacturing and hydro-excavation company that employs 18 and earned $2.5 million last year.

"After I retired from the Army for medical reasons, I worked as a flagger, which seemed like a natural fit for me," she said. "I thought that I could provide a better service than what was being done, so I started my own company. At first, people came to us because they thought that we might be cheaper, but pretty soon they began to appreciate us for our attention to detail; and because we could do everything they needed from flagging, to signage, to providing a pilot car."

Powers soon decided to diversify. "While doing traffic work, we began making our own construction signs," she said. "Other companies heard of us through word-of-mouth, and we started making signs for them. Now we do about 90 percent of the contracted sign work for the State of Alaska."

Not content to stop there, Powers also has taken the company in a new direction, providing hydro-excavation and non-destructive digging services to clients. "We just purchased three Mud Dogs, which are 10-yard capacity hydro-excavators with onboard boilers," she explained of the only machines of their kind in Alaska. Humorously named Rover, Fido and Spot, the machines can dig though frozen ground, and are also good for utility work as they suck the dirt out of excavation areas, leaving utility lines exposed.

"We are also expanding into working on more federal contracts, which require contractors to meet a 3 percent goal of employing disabled veterans," Powers added. "To this end, we're working on the rental side of the business, providing contractors with everything from pickup trucks to goggles to hard hats, as well as services like office administration and janitorial work."

Despite the fact that Powerhouse Construction Services Inc., and its subsidiaries, Powerhouse Signs and Unlimited Supply LLC, are such a success, it wasn't always an easy road for Powers. "There was quite a learning curve when I first started; men and women just communicate differently," she explained. "I think that having a military background helped me because I had experience working with a myriad of different people with different communication styles. It also helped teach me teamwork.

"When I first started, I know that there were several jobs that I didn't get because 'he' knew what he was doing, or the customer knew 'him,'" she added. "A lot of people had the attitude of 'let us show you how it's done,' but that wasn't necessarily the way I chose to run my business."

Powers says that being a woman in a man's world is easier now, though much of a woman's success depends on her attitude. "You can't act like people owe you," she said. "I'm a strong believer that you have a right to whatever you earn. Make sure that you know what you're getting into, and make sure that it's really what you want to do."


While a good education and a desire to succeed will help any women advance in the field, support from other sources, including labor unions and women-based associations, can help females go even further.

"For more than 30 years, the Anchorage office of NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) has been providing educational opportunities and networking assistance to women in the field," explained Tamie Taylor, NAWIC treasurer. "Our core purpose is to enhance the success of women in the construction industry."

Made up of more than 40 members in fields ranging from administration to project managers to architects and carpenters, NAWIC offers monthly education programs relating to topics in construction. Through the national NAWIC Education Foundation, they also offer three certification courses, including Construction Industry Technician, Construction Document Specialist, and Certified Construction Associate.

Each March, NAWIC sponsors Women in Construction Week, during which time they bring in speakers from around the country to share their experiences in the industry. "Last year, we had a speaker in from Chicago to talk about 'left brain/right brain' thinking, and the year before, we had a woman from New York speak about her experiences with NAWIC in South Africa," said Taylor. "The year before that, we organized job site tours for women who wanted to learn more about the intricacies of specific projects."

Through their efforts, NAWIC hopes to help women become more empowered in their careers. "It's still an uphill battle for women in construction, though it is getting better," Taylor said. "Unions have opened themselves up to women coming in, and in fact want to see more women entering the field. Still, membership is low; I think if there were five women working in each union, I'd be shocked."

Taylor says that part of the problem in getting women to participate in construction is the image that the industry projects. "People believe that all construction is is a guy swinging a hammer or pushing a shovel, and that you don't have to be educated to do it," she said. "That is so inaccurate. Even people who work in construction say, 'I don't want my kid driving a truck for 30 years like me.'

"The construction field needs people with good science and math skills, and women need to realize that it's not a fall-back job-it's a career," she continued. "I have a degree in biology, but I choose to be in construction. It's ever changing, and it pays well. And you learn something new everyday."
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Article Details
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Author:Orr, Vanessa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Previous Article:Alaska's top women-owned business: an annual directory of women who own businesses and provide jobs to their communities.
Next Article:Northern Dame Construction: Doris Coy started her business because of a bad boss, and now grosses more than $1 million a year.

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