BY: CASEY QUINLAN
Natalie Bell was thinking about a career in art after college when a welding class and a delivery of four pizzas changed her career trajectory.
“I was taking a delivery out to a construction site and I met an ironworker who I was taking the delivery to,” said Bell, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, are you looking for apprentices? I don’t want to do college anymore, but I’m a welder.’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and he gave me the number to the ironworkers union.”
Bell, now 23, said she was worried at first about being accepted.
“I took my interview and I was so scared because I was like, ‘They’re not going to accept me. I’m a woman trying to do construction.’ I didn’t know how things worked at all,” she said.
Bell, who entered the industry in 2019, said working in construction has its challenges but the money provides her with a decent lifestyle and good health insurance.
“I live very comfortably … I’m going to Iceland in July just because I can,” she said. “I can go do that. I can take a vacation every year. I don’t have to worry about medical bills because I have phenomenal insurance.”
The Biden administration is counting on more women like Bell seeing the value of jobs in the construction industry. Over the next decade, the administration wants to add a million more women in construction jobs to aid in infrastructure projects across the country, including its effort to increase semiconductor manufacturing. The success of that effort will depend on the federal policies now being put in place and changes to an industry that’s not known for being welcoming to women.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 1.2 million women were employed in construction in 2020, and a University of Michigan analysis of the data found that women have gained jobs “at three times their share of the industry,” since the beginning of the pandemic.
Women were slowly but surely entering more male-dominated occupations before the pandemic, said Betsey Stevenson, an economist and professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan who did the analysis with Benny Docter, a senior data and policy analyst at the university. Women lost jobs in education and in the service industry during the pandemic and as they returned to work many shifted to new occupations that reflect changing market conditions, according to their analysis.
“I think that the important takeaway is that women can be an important source of labor for the construction industry,” Stevenson said in an email. “While child care is important for women, it is equally important to note that construction as an industry risks losing more male workers due to child care conflicts. The child care requirements in the CHIPS Act is there to help ensure a sufficient workforce is able to take on the work that is being funded.”
The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, aims to increase the country’s production of chips which are seen as essential for the military and for the economy because of their use in autos and all manner of electronics. The bill provides roughly $40 billion to build or expand plants, and already Intel is building a megaproject near Columbus, Ohio. But to receive federal subsidies, the law requires companies to ensure that the workers they hire, including construction workers building the plants, have access to affordable and high-quality child care.
Finding affordable, quality child care is an issue for many parents, but it can be even more of a struggle for construction workers because day cares typically open after they are already supposed to be at work. That can be particularly hard on single parents.
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