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Advancing Women in Trades event highlights need for women in the workforce

Last Monday, local chapters of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) hosted the inaugural Advancing Women in the Trades event. The program, held at Panther Creek High School in Cary, provided networking opportunities and a platform to discuss issues women face working in trades, with a focus on education and workforce development. In addition, all-women panels shared perspectives and experiences of local students, employees, and industry leaders.

The audience also reflected the goals of the event. Poll responses showed that 42% of attendees were in construction trades and 48% were not, but supported women in trades, and 89% of attendees were women.

After a welcome by Rachel Fleming and Stephany Connelly, NAWIC presidents of Durham and Raleigh respectively, the first panel discussion centered around women early in their careers, including apprentices and recent graduates. The panel was moderated by Kayleen McCabe, a licensed general contractor known for her TV show “Rescue Renovation,” who focused questions around issues like training, student debt (or as it turns out often in the trades, lack thereof), and what it’s like being a young woman in the field.

Kayleen McCabe of Rescue Renovation moderates a discussion with a panel of women early in their trade careers. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

“I rarely get to see women on the job site, and when I do, it’s amazing,” said panelist Joelle Dvorak, a construction and civil engineering student at N.C. State University and intern at CT Wilson Construction. Her work is mostly in renovations, which she said she finds exciting because of its variety.

“One day I could be doing electrical, or one day I could be doing drywall or mudding,” she said.

Co-panelist Emma Bassmayor, an apprentice with Raleigh-Durham Electrical JATC, said she finds the same variety for electricians.

“You’re always motivated to keep learning more,” she said.

But for Grace Leapley, a graduate from Panther Creek High and apprentice at Buhler Aeroglide, what’s kept her in the field is the work environment.

“Even though I’m the only girl on the floor and I’m only 5’1″, the guys let me try things,” Leapley said. “I really like that environment because I feel trusted.”

While it may seem like Leapley’s size could be a challenge, the women said they found ways to use these differences to their advantage. They can fit in smaller construction spaces, like ceilings and crawlspaces, but they also have to modify techniques.

“I work with a lot of very large guys,” Bassmayor said. “So it’s finding my own ways to do it properly.”

McCabe said it’s particularly important that these differences don’t deter women from the industry because there are currently 1.5 million trade jobs going unfilled alongside a retiring generation.

“If you’re breathing, we need you,” McCabe said to the audience.

Industry remarks

Dove Sifers-Putman, southeast market manager for Environamics, moderated a second panel with women working in the industry, which she calls “male-populated” rather than “male-dominated.” And for panelist Rebecca Axford, director of Raleigh-Durham Electrical JATC, events like this demonstrated progress that she hoped to see for women in the trades.

“I don’t think you can have forward progress without changing the scenery,” she said of the low number of women in the field. “It was so cool when I got the invite.”

Still, for the women working in the industry, there’s definitely a shock factor. Jessie Elmore, a construction manager for Habitat for Humanity Wake County, said she often gets asked on the job site, “How did you get here?”

“Well, I walked here,” she said sarcastically. 

Despite the low number of women in the field, Elmore said she didn’t see the work as a barrier for women.

“I see them excelling anywhere they want to be really,” she said. “Anywhere they want to be, if they have a passion for it, they’re going to be there.”

Emily Nystrom, an instructor at Wake Technical Community College and the youngest licensed female electrician in the state, echoed Elmore’s sentiments.

“We belong out there,” she said, and co-panelist Sharon Taybron of Capital Area YouthBuild noted that it was especially important for students to see someone who looked like Nystrom. 

“If there are female educators in the classroom teaching those trades, it should draw more women into the field,” Taybron said. 

Speaking after the panel, Betsy Bailey of Carolinas AGC expanded on ways to draw women into the industry when it’s often a field that’s not attractive to women.

“We’ve got to combat those images that are out there,” she said, noting that 80% of general contractors are experiencing a shortage and much of the workforce will be retiring within the next five to 15 years.

“Quite frankly, the shortage is becoming critical,” Bailey said.

In response, as a lobbyist, she has worked with the legislature to obtain money through the North Carolina Community College System on a branding and imaging campaign for the construction industry. The campaign, found at buildyourcareer.us, will include targeted ads with young and diverse people to make the industry “look cool” and also show the representation companies want to have.

“What we would love to do is a whole lot more,” she said.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.