Less than 1 percent of construction jobs go to women of color in this city 

This story was produced by The 19th and reprinted with permission.

In 2023, Diamond Harriel was looking to make a career switch. She had a 10-month-old daughter and had recently gone back to school for a business administration degree, hoping it could help her earn higher pay than the temporary administrative jobs she had been working. 

One day, through a program that helps single moms, she saw a flier about a new city initiative in Rochester, Minnesota, that aimed to bring women of color into the construction workforce.  

After learning more, Harriel enrolled into a trades readiness training program that taught the ins and outs of construction, from how to read a blueprint, to operating different tools and basic safety. The program exposed her to the possibilities within the construction world: building inspections, project management, apprenticeships in skilled trades like plumbing and electricity.

The city initiative that guided Harriel through the training and helped set up the interview is called the Equity in the Built Environment program. It started in 2023 after Rochester Mayor Kim Norton won a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge. 

When the 2020 recession hit, one thing had become apparent to Norton: Women of color were bearing the brunt of it. In Rochester, they already held some of the lowest paid jobs, and as the pandemic took hold, those positions disappeared in sectors like the service industry, which disproportionately employs women of color. 

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“Probably they struggled the most anyway,” Norton said. “But it was held up and in the sunlight during the pandemic in a way that it was so obvious you couldn’t ignore it.” 

What her office realized is that there wasn’t a shortage of employment opportunities.

Rochester, with a population around 220,000, was halfway into a $585 million, 20-year funding initiative to build new infrastructure downtown. It was also home to the prestigious Mayo Clinic, which had just announced a $5 billion economic growth project.  

All of that growth meant a lot of available construction jobs, which was facing a worker shortage. Could that problem be solved by diversifying the workforce? 

“Our research showed that very few women are in construction and almost no women of color. We said, ‘Well, here’s an opportunity,’” Norton said.  According to the city, women of color make up 13 percent of the city’s population but less than 1 percent work in the construction industry.

Over the past year the city has piloted Equity in the Built Environment to create a solution that could work for everyone — both the construction industry facing an employee shortage and the women they sought to help. If they are successful, they could be a model for other cities as construction projects boom across the country

The pilot project consists of tackling the workforce challenge in three ways, said project manager Julie Brock: educating women and girls about the employment possibilities; training and recruitment for women of color; and addressing long-standing issues with discrimination and harassment in the industry. 

First, program participants are set up with a career counselor with a local workforce development nonprofit, and then they enter either a trades readiness track, or an entrepreneurial track that helps women start their own construction businesses. Throughout that time they have access to wraparound services like child care and transportation to remove barriers to attending classes. For those looking for a job, the program works to place them at three different companies that are partners in the work. So far eight women have completed the program. 

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Explaining to women that there could be a job in the field that fits their interests and skills has been a challenge, Brock said. At first, women assumed that the only jobs available would be more around tradework. Now, the pilot program has framed conversations around the built environment, more broadly, with other career opportunities in health and safety inspections, interior design and project management among others.

“The mindset shift is you are not asking people to go on a construction crew to swing hammers,” Brock said. “If somebody wants to do that, that’s great. But there is amazing wealth to be made in the built environment.”

Trainee Diamond Harriel, who heard about the program through an organization that helps single mothers, participates in a trades readiness training. Credit: Courtney Perry/Bloomberg Philanthropies

Aaron Benike, vice president of operations at Benike Construction, one of the pilot’s partner companies, said that his company is doing whatever it can to attract a more diverse workforce. It’s what drew him to participating in this pilot. 

With the industry currently going through a wave of retirements of its primarily White male workforce — nationwide 1 in 5 construction workers is 55 or older — he realized they need to be more intentional about outreach. 

Out of over 200 employees, they have few women, and just one woman of color who currently works for the company. 

“It’s just a segment of the population that for one reason or another isn’t part of the team,” Benike said. “For one reason or another they haven’t felt welcome or we haven’t reached out, it’s probably both.”

The construction industry as a whole does have a reputation for discrimination and harassment. A report released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year found that women were often denied jobs or harassed and discriminated against on job sites in the construction industry. 

Benike, who had the opportunity to talk with women interested in construction when the program was being designed, said it opened his eyes to things he’d never really thought about. For the women, he said, “safety meant safety from harassment … and that was a blind spot to me,” he said. “I’ve been on job sites my whole life and never experienced anything like that, but why would I, right?” 

His company is currently undergoing training to obtain an Inclusive Workforce Employer Designation, a series of trainings focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, and a requirement to participate in the pilot. He hopes that job seekers will see that as a sign that his company is a safe space to work. The city’s pilot also has trained mentors at each company to work with women when they are hired to ensure a smooth transition into a new field. 

Benike wants to convince more women to consider getting into the field. “The pay is good. The training is good. It’s safe and the pension is good,” he said. 

In recent weeks the city has also launched public service announcements to bring more women into the pilot; now that it’s been running for over a year, organizers feel ready to scale up. 

For Sara Tekle, a participant who did the entrepreneurial track, the pilot has helped her start a business in craft labor, doing the demoing and cleaning up for construction projects.

Tekle, who is originally from Eritrea, was working in nursing at the Mayo Clinic for years. She had already been doing side jobs with construction after taking on some remodeling at her own house. 

But the program helped her build her website, start the process of getting her contractor license and register her business. She is now in a training that will help her place bids for construction work. She’s also been able to network with companies from the city’s pilot who could potentially contract with her company.

The Rochester City Council has adopted requirements that a certain number of women- and minority-owned businesses be involved in construction on city projects, which could help women like Tekle. 

The program made Tekle feel more comfortable working in construction and supported in making a transition to running a company full-time, which she hopes to do in May when bidding season starts for construction work. 

Tekle, who also works as a women’s advocate, said she’d like to encourage other women she knows to consider working in the built trades — eventually she hopes to be an employer. 

“The construction industry is not engaging or welcoming to women,” she said. “When I start my own company, the biggest vision is to hire a woman.” 

This story was produced by The 19th and reprinted with permission.

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