From technology to gender dynamics, TSheets looks into the construction industry’s evolving professional landscape
The construction industry is changing — and changing quickly. Some of today’s most indispensable positions, such as drone operator to sustainability manager, didn’t exist 10 years ago. And it’s not just technology. The faces are changing too.
October is Careers in Construction Month, so to celebrate, we’re taking a look at exactly what the job landscape looks like for today’s construction employees. Who’s working? What expertise are they bringing to the field? And how might the industry evolve to attract more interest in the future?
To help answer those questions, we got in touch with Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Crane Industry Services (CIS) in Carrollton, Georgia.
Debbie is a 20-year veteran of the crane and rigging industry and has been with CIS in some form or another since its inception. Today, she travels around the world, conducting audits for construction and utility companies that can help them work safer, more profitably, and more efficiently. This experience, combined with a passion for craftsmanship and steel-toed boots, has given her tremendous insight into the industry’s rapid growth and changes.
How have the faces in construction changed?
According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), around 939,000 women work in construction, as of December 2016. Prior to the Great Recession, that number was actually well over 1 million. Since its drop to 807,000 in 2010, the number of women in the construction sector has grown consistently and now comprises 9.1 percent of the total workforce.
By far, most of these are on the administrative side of the business, though many are in physical roles like production, material moving, and construction and maintenance. Nearly 300,000 work in “professional and management,” which is a good thing for an industry that is predominantly male.
One reporter for the Harvard Business Review found that female leaders tend to view their position as “transformational,” meaning their job is to “transform their own self-interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal.” They attribute their power to personal characteristics like “charisma, interpersonal skills, hard work, or personal contacts,” and they practice inclusiveness with their teams, which benefits the company. In fact, out of the 16 competencies that go into “outstanding leadership,” women ranked higher than men in 12 of them.
Debbie, who’s been a CEO for the last decade, got her start in 1998, the same year this C-SPAN video came out, marking the then-20th anniversary of the “publication of goals for women and minorities in construction.” It’s fitting that 40 years later, we ask Debbie how her experience has changed since she entered this male-dominated field.
“It’s gotten a lot better over the years,” she says. “For the most part, it’s now very respectful.” Occasionally, Debbie says some people still “act out” around her, but that her Southern good humor has helped her confront those situations in such a way that both she, and the other party, have left on a more equal footing.
“Twenty years ago, it would’ve been very uncomfortable to address inappropriate behavior, because women didn’t have the respect,” she says. “It didn’t matter how much you knew or that your steel-toed boots were just as dirty as the guy’s next to you. But it’s gotten better. And it may be just that I’ve got comfortable in my own skin, but I do think, overall, the perceptions are changing.”
How are changing faces impacting the industry?
Debbie works with some college and career academies in the Atlanta area, as well as Power UP, Inc., and she says she’s talked to women about how the construction industry has changed. “Once upon a time, men needed to do these jobs because it took so much brute strength to do a lot of the work. That day has changed. Technology and the advancements in hydraulic equipment have made it possible for those jobs to no longer be gender-specific.”
While women may not yet make up a large percentage out in the field, their role in administration and management has already started to affect industry interactions, partnerships, and tech. “Whoever is most comfortable with the technology in the office is going to have somewhat of a leadership or influencer role, and women are often fulfilling both roles,” says Debbie.
She notes that women and men, historically, buy differently. “Women tend to look at who the company is — who are they as an organization? Is this somebody I want to work with? We’ll base a decision on ‘Will this do the job? Will this fulfill the job?’ and then if you find two that are equal, the company that is going to be more of a partner or a give-back organization is going to win over the other company, even if the other company is $10 cheaper.”
Debbie uses the analogy of purchasing a car as an example, citing the shift when the auto industry began to realize women were the No. 1 buyers of cars and tires. “Do we care if the car has power? Yes, but we’re also aware that the maximum speed on the interstate is 70, so we don’t really give a rip if it’ll go 110. We’re going to buy on safety features more than we are on power and speed,” she says. (She amends these are generalizations, but the fact is in the data.) “I think that applies to when we’re looking for technology,” she continues. “We want something that gets the job done and is easy to use, but we’re going to evaluate based on trust and support also.”
What new expertise is needed in the construction workforce?
In late 2017, TSheets ran a study to see how the construction industry was shaping up in the recovering economy. By looking into the data from our own timesheets, recorded by 12,000 U.S. construction companies, our team was able to determine that many companies are still feeling the strain. Only, it’s not a lack of business that’s doing harm — it’s a lack of skilled and experienced workers.
Timesheet data showed construction workers were putting in an average of 39.6 hours a week — an increase of about one hour since 2015. And those working overtime were working a lot of extra hours — 9.6 per week, on average.
Tom Layton is a safety engineer for a construction company that employs 350 people. He’s seen the shortage personally but says it’s not due to a lack of bodies. “I could get 50 people,” he says. “But I need five to do the job. I need five quality people. People who want to do this job, are competing for this job, who have a passion for this job.”
Debbie agrees, and she attributes the lack of skilled workers to the country’s decreased emphasis on craftsmanship. “I’m very concerned that we think every kid has to go out and get a college degree,” she says. Many people seem to think that if someone doesn’t go to college, it’s because they’ve failed in life somehow, or they just don’t have what it takes to succeed. But Debbie turns that back around. “Not everybody has what it takes to be a skilled craft professional,” she says.
Naturally, there are some jobs in construction that do require a college degree: mechanical engineering, design, operations. But Debbie says the problem is largely a lack of hands-on experience. It’s not that they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, in theory — it’s the lack of physical interaction that creates a disconnect, where workers under- or overestimate the size of a project, the materials needed to accomplish it, or the expected timeline to completion.
“There are a lot of people showing up on job sites with no point of relevance,” she says. “People are coming in smart and better educated, but I think the understanding and the comprehension of the how-to has greatly declined.”
As crazy as it sounds, when it comes to what sorts of skills a potential candidate can bring to the table, the answer here isn’t necessarily some new kind of expertise. It’s good old-fashioned experience gleaned from onsite job training. That could be craft internships, summers spent on job sites, or helping out on physical structures for nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity.
How will the industry need to adapt to attract tomorrow’s workforce?
Like any industry, construction is evolving, particularly as technology continues to improve, creating new positions and refining old ones. Debbie’s company, for instance, has two drone pilots on staff now. Eighteen months ago, they had zero.
But the construction industry isn’t just changing to include more tech-minded individuals. If women are to play a more active role in this previously male-dominated space, the conversation must change too.
Debbie says it’s all about casting construction in a new light. She recalls something an eighth-grade girl said to her when she was doing some outreach at a local school. “She had a really interesting comment. She said, ‘I think that the construction world will appeal to a lot more people — particularly girls — if they will think about all of the creativity and different aspects of the work that needs to be done and not just the tools.’”
Whether those young ladies go on to leadership or find they’re better suited for a pair of steel-toed boots and a drone in hand, one thing is for certain: The construction industry, 10 years from now, won’t be the same as it is today. With the help of new faces, new opportunities, and new technology, it’s certain to be better than ever.