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Women Take on Construction Jobs

September 3, 2000

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP)_ After working in a variety of jobs from dental assistant to cocktail waitress, Nancy Bailey Farrar took what was an unusual step for a woman in 1972 and launched a career as a welder.

Nearly three decades later, she still loves to weld bridges, steel frames of new buildings and pipes in mills, and shares her enthusiasm with young women who come to Waldo Regional Technical Center to learn the skill.

``I have a great passion to teach other people to weld, especially women,″ said Bailey Farrar, owner of Nancy’s Welding in Freedom. ``The work force needs them badly, but a lot of women don’t even have the confidence to try.″

As the nation marks Labor Day, a push is on to draw more women to construction jobs. Sept. 3-9 is Women in Construction Week, an observance sponsored by the National Association of Women in Construction.

Despite the strong economy and an unrelenting demand for workers in construction trades, advocates are not seeing the number of women they would like to see taking the traditionally male-dominated jobs.

Government figures show a gradual increase in the percentage of women in construction jobs.

For example, in Maine, unpublished data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards show women accounted for about 5 percent of construction jobs in 1980. The figure rose to 7 percent in 1990 and was just a shade above 10 percent 1998, according to the figures, which are subject to adjustments.

The figures may seem to measure up well to the federal goal of 6.9 percent women in each trade in each construction project, but they don’t tell the whole story, said Kyle Slayback, job director for Women Unlimited, which offers job training and counsels women entering trade and technical occupations.

``We would like it to be 25 percent. If we could get an overall rate of 12 to 15 percent, that would be awesome,″ said Slayback, whose 12-year-old nonprofit agency has trained 625 women since 1988.

Many smaller companies have difficulty getting women on the payroll.

``One of the reasons given for years is that they don’t apply. Well, they do apply now,″ Slayback said.

On the other hand, companies like New Hampshire-based paving company Pike Industries are seeing women they actively recruit and hire rising through the ranks.

One of Pike’s eight paving crews in Maine is led by a female ``foreperson,″ District Manager Bob Robillard said. One of its nine Maine plant operators is a woman, as are at least four of roughly 30 dump truck drivers and numerous traffic coordinators.

``We’ve spent a lot of time recruiting women,″ said Robillard. ``We look at (them) as a new resource.″

Not all women are drawn to or even cut out for construction trades. And many, eager to get to work immediately, are lured by fast-food, clerical and other jobs that don’t require much training.

By not taking a longer view, those women are overlooking secure, better-paying jobs that offer better benefits, said Slayback.

There are some positive trends, however. Many of the men who entered construction jobs during the height of the nation’s highway building era of the 1950s and ’60s are retiring, opening up new spaces for willing women.

The state Department of Transportation has an affirmative action policy of its own and requires contractors it hires to have women and minorities on the payroll.

Jane Gilbert, DOT’s director of human resources, said she was pleased to see a female foreman, truck driver, roller operator and laborer while visiting a Maine Route 11 reconstruction site in Patten recently.

``We’re getting there. We wouldn’t have seen that five years ago,″ said Gilbert. She would like to see even more women at such sites, but realizes it could take a while because it involves a larger cultural change.

``Do I think it’s too slow? I sure do,″ said Gilbert. ``It’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a concrete ceiling.″


On the Net:

Women Unlimited: www.womenunlimited.org

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