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Women find building trades are becoming ‘more welcoming’

As part of the March 6-12 Women in Construction week in the Twin Cities, volunteer crews will work on a Habitat for Humanity project in Minneapolis. Pictured is a local Women in Construction crew from a 2020 Habitat project. (Submitted photo: NAWIC)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — When Janelle Miller started working as a laborer a little more than 20 years ago, she could literally count on one hand the number of women on her crew.

“There’s still very few of us in the industry comparatively,” said Miller, a contracts administrator with Chisago City-based Peterson Cos. and director with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. “But I was one of, at one point, three females on a job site of 350 people. It was myself, a welder and a fitter.”

Put another way, less than 1% of the workers on that job were women. In 2021, women represented about 47% of the overall workforce and 11% of construction workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though Miller and others see progress as women gain more of a foothold in the industry, there’s still a lot of room for improvement. That’s why local and national events like Women in Construction week are important, Miller says.

The March 6-12 event, presented locally by the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of the NAWIC, offers networking opportunities, educational programs, project tours and more. The idea is to “celebrate our diversity and share connections” in the industry, according to the event’s webpage.

Between 300 and 500 people are expected to attend Women in Construction events at various locations throughout the Twin Cities, said Katie Murphy, president of NAWIC’s Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter and a project manager with Metropolitan Mechanical Contractors.

Murphy said the events are intended for office or field workers, as well as students working toward a construction degree.

Exhibitors include the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, Minnesota Construction Association, NAWIC, Dunwoody College of Technology, Construction Careers Foundation and others.

Women in Construction week is an annual event. The pandemic limited last year’s festivities to virtual gatherings, but this year’s event offers a mix of programs that are in-person, virtual or both, Murphy said.

Highlights include a speed networking and opening ceremonies get-together at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, a Southwest Light Rail Transit project meet-and-greet in Hopkins, a Habitat for Humanity Build in Minneapolis, and a virtual legal webinar on “common mistakes in responding to EEOC complaints.”

The March 8 “Beyond the Pink” event in St. Paul will offer demos of products and work clothes for women in construction, as well as a “gear swap” for people interested in gently used items, such as clothes and boots.

Miller said the gatherings include early evening and lunch hour sessions, so trades people can attend outside of their regular work hours.

“And it’s not just for women. It is the celebration of women in construction, but we also realize that all of our male counterparts are partners in that, so males are invited to these as well,” Miller said.

Reflecting on her own career journey in the trades, Miller said her father was a heavy equipment operator, but she didn’t know any women in the business before she landed that job as a utilities laborer.

Even so, after spinning her wheels at a “barely-over-minimum-wage” job, Miller turned to construction — and turned her life around, she recalls. Miller joined the union and worked in the field for 11 years, advancing to field engineer and project coordinator positions.

Utility work on highway-heavy, commercial and industrial jobs had a special appeal.

“I fell in love with the dirt world. I’ve always loved playing in the dirt, so that was kind of my thing,” she said.

Construction was a springboard to further success. The money she earned as a laborer paid for college tuition, Miller said. A graduate of Inver Hills Community College and St. Mary’s University, she has worked for the past eight years as a contracts administrator for Peterson Cos.

Miller acknowledges that construction is hard work.

“It can be cold, it can be dirty,” she said. “But the industry has changed and is much more welcoming, I think, to females now. The ironworkers have a maternity leave. It’s becoming much more welcoming to other family dynamics, single parents and that type of thing.”

This is a winner profile from The Daily Record's Health Care Heroes awards. Information for this profile was sourced from the honoree's application for the award.