The number of women working in B.C.’s traditionally male construction industry is growing and they are also making gains on the salary front.
A survey conducted by the BC Construction Association (BCCA) indicates the industry is becoming increasingly diverse, with 10,667 credentialed tradeswomen now working in construction in the province. Women now make up 6.2 per cent of the workforce, a 35 per cent increase over a five-year period.
Sixty-five per cent of females who responded to the survey also reported an increase in income and 53 per cent indicated they changed jobs over the past year for more money.
“We’ve got a ways to go yet but what I would say is that we’re very encouraged by the numbers,” says BCCA president Chris Atchison. “The culture is changing and awareness to worksite behaviour is improving.
“The extraordinary gains that we’ve seen in the last few years feels good and the rate of improvement will continue to increase in our estimation.”
The survey showed women reported a higher overall satisfaction with the industry, resulting in females being 130 per cent more likely to recommend the construction industry as a career path than men.
Part of the reason is an improved culture overall, with 83 per cent of employers reporting they have a policy in place that addresses the need for fair and equal treatment of all workers, compared to 60 per cent in 2017.
The results show that word is getting out that the trades are a great place for women, which is critical as it’s anticipated 11,331 construction jobs may be unfilled in B.C. by 2030, says Atchison.
“The programs and supports that are there and the acceptance of employers in the industry to recognize that there’s a workforce shortage and non-traditional labour supplies need to be valued, that is an extremely encouraging sign and that culture shift needs to continue to change,” he says. “We need to continue on this path of making our worksites acceptable.”
Over the years there have been programs and supports in place that have tried to sell the skilled trades to women, but the culture in construction hasn’t done a great job of retaining them, says Atchison.
“Not only do we need to be responsible about encouraging underrepresented groups to come into the industry, but we need to, as an industry, continue to move along this spectrum of what is acceptable.”
The survey found the availability of skilled workers remains the number one challenge for contractors. Chronic lack of prompt payment jumped from third to second place and worries about safety took the number three spot.
In spite of COVID-19, the construction industry continued to operate safely and remained the number one employer in B.C.’s goods sector, the survey found. Although the figure has dipped three per cent in the last five years, more than 219,500 people rely directly on construction for a paycheque.
The survey found the growth of the industry increased the financial stability, job satisfaction and diversity of the workforce. Despite the pandemic, 35 per cent of employers reported an increase in the size of their workforce, which is less of a gain than prior years but still significant. More than half of employer respondents indicated they’re offering more hours this year, and 90 per cent are paying overtime wages.
“First and foremost, industry has performed heroically during the pandemic,” says Atchison. “We’ve been deemed essential, we’re maintaining our workforces, we’re keeping safe, and as a result of that the workforce overall is financially secure and more satisfied with their work. That said, we’re still seeing skilled workforce shortages and we need to attract more workers to the industry. It’s still the number one issue.”
With people out of work in other industries, Atchison says construction represents a viable career option that is lucrative but retaining workers is key.
“I think the primary message is that we just can’t focus on attraction, we have to focus on retention.”
According to the survey, COVID-19 put new strains on employers who sought to balance safety protocols, late payments, rising costs and materials shortages with their responsibility to keep working when others could not.
“We’ve got to remember that when the pandemic started we were designated as non-health-care essential right up front,” says Atchison. “The safety protocols had to be created and implemented and managed and monitored quite quickly. We took the lead on that and we expected a lot of the industry and members.”
Employers had to reconfigure and stagger shifts and still ensure there was a flow of work on sites, he notes, as well as focus on issues like supplies and installing sanitizing stations.
Construction sites are already complex and groups had to come together every day with different types of knowledge and ever-changing conditions and rules, says Atchison.
Today, contractors are concerned about the costs of building materials like drywall, steel and lumber and plastics.
“We could write a book on the supply-chain disruptions and they’re only going to continue to be exacerbated with the stimulus plan that’s being rolled out in the United States. It’s going to continue to tax our supply.”