Janice Moreno graduated from college with a degree in English literature, but never landed a job paying more than $12 an hour. Now, at 36, she's back in the classroom — in safety glasses and a T-shirt — learning how to be a carpenter.
"I believe it's going to pay off," she said amid instruction in sawing techniques.
If Moreno's six-week training program in New York City leads to a full-time job, she'll have bucked long odds. On this Labor Day weekend, ponder the latest federal data: About 7.1 million Americans were employed in construction-related occupations last year — and only 2.6 percent were women.
That percentage has scarcely budged since the 1970s, while women have made gains since then in many other fields.
Why the low numbers, in an industry abounding with high-paying jobs that don't require college degrees? Reasons include a dearth of recruitment efforts aimed at women and hard-to-quash stereotypes that construction work doesn't suit them.
Another factor, according to a recent report by the National Women's Law Center, is pervasive sexual harassment of women at work sites.
"It's not surprising that the construction trades are sometimes called 'the industry that time forgot,'" said Fatima Goss Graves, the center's vice president for education and employment. "It's time for this industry to enter the modern era — to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for women, hire qualified female workers and enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment."
Efforts to accomplish those goals are more advanced in New York than in many parts of the country, with pledges by unions, employers and city officials to boost women's share of construction jobs. One key player is Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, a nonprofit which offers training programs such as the one taken by Moreno.
The organization has arrangements with several unions to take women directly into their multiyear apprenticeships — at a starting wage of around $17, plus benefits — once they complete the program. After four or five years, they can attain journeyman status, with hourly pay of $40 or more.
Kathleen Culhane, NEW's interim president, said more than 1,000 graduates have obtained apprenticeships since 2005, and 12 to 15 percent of the apprentices with some leading unions are women.
NEW covers all costs for its students, who must be able to carry 50-pound loads.
Beyond learning job skills, the students do role-playing to get ready for future challenges. Among the topics, Moreno said, is how to distinguish between flagrant sexual harassment that should be reported, as opposed to less egregious behavior.
"They want us to be prepared for the possibility we won't be liked, or we'll be the only woman on the job," Moreno said.
If young women considering a construction career are in search of a role model, Holley Thomas might fit the bill.
She took up welding at a community college in Alabama, landed a job in 2009 with construction giant KBR Inc., and in 2010 became the first woman to take first place in welding at the Associated Builders and Contractors' National Craft Championships, a competition launched in 1987.
Thomas, 29, is now supervising a 10-worker crew at a KBR project in Florida. She speaks occasionally to high school girls, who are impressed by her paycheck that averages more than $2,000 a week.
"The biggest issue is getting through to the parents of the kids, the counselors at the schools and making clear that construction is a viable career," Thomas said.
Mary Battle also has succeeded with a construction career, although she says it required unwavering tough-mindedness.
Now 50, Battle has been working in cement masonry for 30 years and in 2012 became the first woman elected business manager of Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 891 in Washington, D.C. Under her leadership, the number of women in the local has risen from five to 12, but she says sexist attitudes persist in the industry.
"Men don't perceive of women as someone coming to work, they perceive of women as a sex object," Battle said.
For younger women considering a construction career, Battle tells them: "No matter how much negativity you get, keep on the job and don't quit."
A mother of six, Battle credits a devoted baby sitter with helping her handle long work hours. Many construction jobs start in early morning, complicating child-care arrangements for some single mothers.
Another challenge for women is to get their fair share of working hours, according to Elly Spicer, a former carpenter who is now director of training at a technical college affiliated with New York City carpenters unions.
"You'll find, unquestionably, that women get access to less hours than men," said Spicer. "You can't do this working six months of the year."
The management side of the industry insists it would welcome more women.
"Most of our members are desperate to hire people," said Brian Turmail, public affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of America. "They're looking for any candidate who's qualified to come and join the team — women, minorities, veterans."
Turmail suggested that most women aren't tempted by construction careers, while those who are interested might be hampered by cutbacks in school-based vocational programs.
The Labor Department plans to award $100 million in grants this year for apprenticeship programs that expand opportunities for women and minorities.
"The reality is that the face of apprenticeship in the construction industry has been white male," Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview. "We're working to ensure the future reflects the face of America."
A crucial step, Perez said, is to highlight the successes of women who have thrived in construction.
"Women are good at this," he said. "They've punched a ticket to the middle class and speak with great pride of the barriers they've overcome."
Regarding sexual harassment, the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has pledged to crack down on contractors who fail to prevent serious abuses.
Earlier this year, the office determined that three female carpenters with a Puerto Rico firm were sexually harassed and denied work hours comparable to those of male workers. At times, the company failed to provide the women with a restroom, and they had to relieve themselves outdoors, the office said. Under a conciliation agreement, the company agreed to pay $40,000 to the three women.
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