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Women can make a difference in construction: PCA

Danna O’Brien
Women can make a difference in construction: PCA

Canada’s construction industry wants and needs women.

Right now, as many as 1.4 million Canadians make a living in construction. But that’s not nearly enough. The industry requires about 300,000 new workers this decade to counter baby boom retirements. While skilled tradespeople are in high demand, so are many other professionals, from project managers to superintendents and estimators. That leaves the field wide open, with more opportunities than ever for women to succeed and lead in construction.

If you think construction is confined to operating heavy equipment, driving nails or erecting scaffolding, you’d be wrong. While construction is hard work, it doesn’t have to be physically demanding. In fact, an increasing number of women at construction companies with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA) are rising to the top of their professions, and they’re doing it, without ever lifting a hammer.

“Construction isn’t flashy or glamorous, but it is exciting.” That’s how Claire Smith, a Bird Construction project manager, describes her chosen field. “It’s such a backbone of our economy, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Smith was hired by Bird Construction, after graduating from the University of Alberta with a degree in civil engineering. A problem solver, who is super organized and loves math, she began as a coordinator, working her way into management within five years.

Smith oversees multi-discipline industrial projects, figuring out project costs, deciding which subcontractors to hire and ensuring there’s enough labour so that all parts of the project run smoothly.

Smith works with large teams of people, including clients, contractors and superintendents, most of whom are men. In 2014, during construction of the Suncor Fort Hills Non-Process Buildings, it struck her that women are making their mark in this industry.

“There were four engineers on a conference call and all four were women,” Smith recalled. “We were all laughing because that never happens.”

Judy Spear, North America Construction’s head of human resources, agrees that such a strong female presence is still rare in construction. “While there has definitely been progress in terms of hiring more women, there are pockets where there’s a lot more to do.”

Spear sees construction is an industry where women who apply themselves can advance quickly and make a real difference. The added challenge now she says is countering the mindset of a new workforce, of both women and men. “After working from home for months during COVID-19, many may be less inclined to travel for their careers.”

Lorrie Horne doesn’t mind the travel. The mother of two, head coach of Canada’s National Ringette team and workforce manager at Jasper Constructors, travels for work between Alberta, B.C. and Ontario. Horne, whose diverse responsibilities range from yearly planning and budgeting, to negotiating collective agreements, wouldn’t hesitate to recommend construction.

“Construction is a great career for women. You learn something every day. People are really ‘judgy’ about it from the outside. But once you get in, you realize how cool it is. I’ve never picked up a hammer, but I’m part of building something meaningful.”

However, a career in construction wasn’t something Horne planned.

In 2006, she was coaching the national team, teaching anatomy and exercise physiology with plans to do a PhD, when her academic career took a major turn. Horne was introduced to the “head guy” at Jasper Constructors one day at the rink. They had coffee, and she was soon hired as a field advisor, in charge of day to day hiring and recruiting. He turned out to be her mentor, or “work dad” as she describes him. “That guy who tells you when you’ve done a good job, and makes you think and figure it out.”

Leah Powell’s mentor was her dad. She grew up in a small town outside Williams Lake, B.C, where her dad, an auto mechanic, taught her how to fix up her first “beater of a car.” Powell, liked math, working with her hands, and the thought of graduating without school debt.

She completed an apprenticeship and worked as a journeyman electrician for about a year before landing a position in estimating. It’s an environment she thrives in: “fast paced and stressful, where you work with good people; there’s always a deadline and never a dull moment.” Powell is now an Assistant Estimating Manager at PTW Energy Services Ltd., where she reviews the scope of work along with equipment, labour and material costs for large scale projects. Powell says there’s no downside to a career in construction.

As she sees it, women who are good with tools will always be able to fix a flat tire or things around the house. “A woman in construction will never be a damsel in distress.”

The Progressive Contractors Association of Canada launched the “Opportunity Knocks Campaign” to encourage more women to consider a career in construction. To learn more, go to opportunity-knocks.ca

Danna O’Brien is the principal at O’Brien Communications and wrote this op-ed on behalf of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.

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