The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is a “once-in-a-generation” investment in America’s national infrastructure. With this plan, the goal is to rebuild many of the bridges, rails, and roads throughout the country to improve the overall infrastructure across America. Additional parts of this bill – now law – include making sure that every American has access to high-speed internet, advancing environmental justice, investing in communities that have been overlooked, and addressing the climate crisis.
In this article, we’re looking at the IIJA and its impact on opportunities for women in the industry. The IIJA is intended to grow the U.S. economy while making it more sustainable, resilient, and just. The White House states that it will drive the creation of union jobs and help grow the economy in a sustainable way that makes sure all people, including under-represented communities get ahead for decades to come.
Aside from enhancing the country’s global competitiveness, the IIJA will create meaningful jobs for America’s workforce, especially in construction. In fact, it’s estimated that this federal investment will add at least 1.5 million jobs to the economy over the next 10 years. Of those jobs, 175,000 are expected to be in the construction industry, which will largely be responsible for the restructuring of railways, bridges, roadways, and other transformational infrastructure changes around the country.
The recruitment and hiring of women have the potential to meaningfully change the workforce landscape of the construction industry. For example, by 2013, 38 projects in Massachusetts had adapted to focus on increasing the number of women in the industry and had 7.33% of the work hours completed by women. That year, it was around twice the national average. For women in construction, this IIJA is an excellent opportunity to make construction jobs more inclusive around the nation.
So, how does the IIJA advance opportunities for women? Well, it has its own participation goals for women, which may offer a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to reduce or eliminate barriers to women in the construction industry.
Current representation of women in construction
Women are underrepresented in the construction industry, and they have been for a long time. According to Commonwealth Magazine, “in 1989, women made up somewhere between 2% and 3% of the national construction workforce. Fifteen years ago, we were at about 3%; 2020: 4%.”
Today, women represent approximately 11% of the U.S. construction industry. In the field, that’s even less. Women make up only 4.5% of all construction laborers and 3% of all construction equipment operators, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chicago Women in Trades has been helping women move into jobs in the construction industry since 1981. “Our work through the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment allows us to provide technical assistance, toolkits, training to support industry leaders who are ready to deliver on commitments to create welcoming environments to women in construction,” according to Lauren Sugerman, the Director of the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment at Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT).
Adding more women to the construction workforce will provide benefits. “When women join the construction workforce, they are closing the generational race, ethnicity, and gender gaps,” she explained.
When women join the construction workforce, they are closing the generational race, ethnicity, and gender gaps.
– Lauren Sugerman, Director at Chicago Women in Trades
“Another benefit,” expressed Drew Olsen, the U.S. Department of Transportation Sales Lead, Autodesk Construction Solutions, “is that diverse perspectives and life experiences contribute to a more well-rounded team. Furthermore, it has been my experience that men and women each have their own diverse strengths. By having a diverse team, we are in a better position to fill in one person’s weakness with another’s strength.
Think of critical skills around communication, planning, and organizing (where projects can live or die); we need as many diverse perspectives as we can to deliver on the gigantic needs of our infrastructure and the scale that the IIJA will bring. I hope we are nearing the point where this is a foregone conclusion.”
The Infrastructure Deal has the potential to help close these gaps and to encourage more women in the construction industry both in and outside of the field.
Improving representation in the workforce
Action needs to be taken to increase the total number of women working in construction. Women need to have access to resources, like childcare, vocational training, and apprenticeships, which help them address educational and training needs as well as specific industry needs.
Fortunately, organizations and the government itself are working toward helping more women enter the workforce in construction. Occupational Health & Safety Magazine points out some helpful tips for recruiting women, such as creating inclusive job listings, reaching out to women who may fit a role, and including women in the hiring process. Providing good networking and support is also essential for companies looking to build communities that are inclusive and diverse.
In addition to bringing more women into the construction workforce, there has to be an importance placed on retention. For Olsen, he believes that the focus has to be placed on putting women in leadership positions to foster a welcoming environment and to help foster support for women-led organizations.
“Fostering support through women-led organizations like Women in Transportation and Engineering (WTE) is one option. We also need to branch out of design and engineering and into the core construction industries.”
Sugerman adds, “The industry won’t see good retention rates for women if we don’t address the harassment and exclusionary practices many tradeswomen still report facing in the construction workplace. Good federal and state oversight to ensure non-discrimination and respectful workplaces can be a hallmark of these investments, especially if contractors are responsible for conducting anti-harassment training, bystander intervention training, establishing and following policy that protects victims of harassment, and requiring equitable practices in apprenticeship classrooms and on-the-job training.
The retention of women is also rooted in ensuring industry leaders, contractors, unions, and apprenticeship programs equip them with the knowledge, skill, and confidence to affirm their role in the construction industry. CWIT can conduct anti-harassment training and assist companies, unions, and apprenticeship programs in setting up peer support and mentorship programs.”
The impact of the IIJA on women
Now that the Infrastructure Bill has passed, it is causing changes. For Sugerman, this is an extension of what she has already focused on. For instance, CWIT offers their own preparatory training programs like Women Build Illinois and contributes to training programs supported by several organizations like ComEd’s Construction Infrastructure Academy.
The IIJA creates more jobs, which means that there is, and will be, a greater need for women to enter the field of construction. It presents a very unique opportunity to create thousands of jobs for populations that historically would not have been able to access them, such as women and people of color, according to Jane Villinga, Executive Director of CWIT.
While women have not historically represented a majority of the workforce in this field, that may be based on a preconceived notion that women are not as strong or capable as men. However, women have been doing heavy labor and can do heavy labor alongside men. There are over 308,400 women who already work frontline jobs in the construction industry in the United States today. With the passing of the Infrastructure Bill, many more have the opportunity to join those numbers. The question is, how will employers pursue opportunities to grow a more diverse workforce–especially in the field?
The IIJA is a unique opportunity to create lasting change
Now that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has passed, there are many new opportunities for women to join the construction workforce. It’s not just up to them, though. While participation goals have to be met while this bill is in place, it is up to all people working in the industry to foster a welcoming environment, to address a lack of women leaders in construction, and to bridge the gap between current numbers and the total number of women who are needed in this industry in the future.
Join us in The Big Room to discuss this topic and many more with our network of construction professionals.