WALL STREET JOURNAL
Help Wanted: Women to Fix America’s Infrastructure
Bipartisan law adds millions of jobs at a time of worker shortages
By Sarah Chaney Cambon and Sabrina Siddiqui
Sept. 7, 2023 9:00 am ET
WASHINGTON—Ashley Lair was struggling to pay rent when she decided to leave her bartending job last year and pursue a new career in the construction industry.
Now, a year into her apprenticeship, Lair drives haul trucks and transports dirt, gravel and rocks for a highway project. She earns $38 an hour, plus overtime—more than double her pay as a bartender. The Redmond, Ore., resident no longer worries about affording rent.
“I have fun telling people who knew me from bartending what I do for a living now,” said Lair, 34 years old. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I run heavy equipment,’ and they’re like, ‘What?!’ ”
The Biden administration and the construction industry are urging other women to embrace Lair’s unorthodox career path. The $550 billion, bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021 has funded nearly 37,000 projects to date and is projected to create millions of jobs. But that boom in investment comes amid a nationwide shortage of infrastructure workers.
The federal government is working with tradeswomen organizations and local governments to help women enter and stay in the labor force, developing strategies that include offering child-care services and addressing gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace, officials said.
“It’s an economic necessity to figure out how to attract, train and retain women into these fields if we’re going to get the job done,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in an interview.
The construction industry is also finding novel solutions to lure female workers. In Washington state, a union and the local chapter of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, or Smacna, are rolling out structures called lactation pods to help mothers return to construction sites while they are still breastfeeding.
The pods resemble porta-potties but are made from the same materials used in recreational vehicles. They include air conditioning, heat, outlets to plug in a pumping machine, and a refrigerator to keep the breast milk cold, said Julie Muller, executive vice president of Smacna-Western Washington.
Though women make up about 50% of all U.S. workers, they account for just 19% of those in infrastructure jobs responsible for building and maintaining projects in transportation, water, energy and broadband, according to 2021 estimates from Joseph Kane, research fellow at the Brookings Institution.
An increasing number of women began taking jobs in some male-dominated blue-collar industries in recent years, in part because companies broadened recruitment. About 4% of on-site construction workers were women in 2021, up from 3% in 2010. Women remain especially scarce in specialized construction jobs such as electricians and pipelayers.
If the status quo remains, women will account for about 29% of jobs created by the infrastructure bill, according to an analysis published last year by the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Among women who do enter construction, many leave quickly because of discrimination or isolation, said Ariane Hegewisch, senior research fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It’s difficult if you are the only one,” she said.
Nearly a quarter of tradeswomen polled said they “always or frequently face sexual harassment” on the job, according to a 2021 survey by the IWPR. A report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released in May said that sexualized conversations, jokes, graffiti and pornography are rampant in the industry and women who report harassment often see their complaints dismissed by supervisors.
Dominique Drew saw two other tradeswomen at a recent assignment setting glass windows at a condominium complex in New York City. That is an improvement from earlier in her career, when she didn’t see any other women on-site.
Drew, 38, said that after two decades of working as a glazier, she still feels the constant need to prove herself to men, whether they are plumbers, electricians or sheet-metal workers. “You get on the job site, and they judge you just because you are a woman,” she said. “When they see a female they go, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’ ”
The East Orange, N.J., resident said she often turns to a strategy she learned in a support group for union tradeswomen: let her work speak for itself. That includes helping lift heavy glass and jumping in to operate machines.
“Once I start working, once I start talking the lingo, they’re like, ‘Oh…she knows what she’s doing,’ ” Drew said.
Child care is another barrier, given the industry’s early-morning hours and the need to move between job sites, administration officials said.
Tiffany Caulfield, of Arlington, Wash., said affordable child-care options that would fit her 5:30 a.m. start time as a sheet-metal apprentice were limited. That, along with working conditions during pregnancy and the inability to pump breast milk at work, kept her out of the workforce from 2011 until 2015. She appreciated the time with her children but missed out on contributing to her retirement accounts.
She also was conflicted when seeing her co-workers advance in their apprenticeships and careers while she was at home. “It really weighed heavily on me, and I think it added to postpartum depression,” she said.
Caulfield, 35, eventually returned to finish her apprenticeship and is now a regional representative for a sheet-metal workers’ union in Washington state.
This summer, the Biden administration launched “workforce hubs” in Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia—the latter three key 2024 election battleground states—aimed at diversifying the workforce through the expansion of pre-apprenticeship and Registered Apprenticeship programs and career and technical education.
The administration said construction will be a crucial part of each hub, which will be centered around such sectors as manufacturing, clean energy and semiconductors.
“We know that women want to work, and we know that women can do these jobs,” said acting Labor Secretary Julie Su.