Many industries are more heavily populated by one gender or the other but few so distinctly as the building and construction field. Nationally, the Women’s Law Center reports that only 2.6 percent of construction workers are women, but in Rochester, women are claiming their place among their male counterparts and literally climbing the ladder to success.
ROADS TO WORK IN CONSTRUCTION
There are many influences that can lead to a chosen career field. For women in the building and construction industry, family is often a major influence.
“My father brought home drawings when I was young,” says Mary Benike Kisilewski, Vice President and Project Manager for Alvin E. Benike, Inc. Mary’s interest in those drawings ultimately led her to choose a career in construction.
Kate Van Hout found her way into the field through both family and the influence of technology. “My dad is in the industry, and I always thought what he did was pretty cool,” says Kate. “But ever since I was young, I enjoyed designing homes with games like ‘The Sims.’” Kate’s pastime as a youth developed into a full-time passion leading her to a career as a technical designer for Widseth Smith Nolting & Associates, Inc.
Karen Blissenbach’s path into the field was not as linear as Mary’s and Kate’s. “When I started my college program for interior design, I was surprised how much the courses concentrated on building structure,” she recalls. “I had no idea I would be tested on roof types and cabinet construction.” But Karen found she loved all the work and spent several years after graduation traveling around the U.S. working on a variety of projects before returning to her home in the Rochester area to start Design Studio B.
Brea Koebele works alongside Mary as a project estimator at Alvin E. Benike, Inc. She was hired at 15 years old to work at a lumberyard. She enjoyed the position so much she kept it throughout high school and college. “Working at the lumberyard made it easier to adjust to being the only female in most of my college classes,” she says. Brea graduated from Minnesota State University-Mankato with a degree in construction management. At only 42 years old, Brea has already spent 27 years working in the building industry.
UNIQUE CAREER CHALLENGES FOR WOMEN IN CONSTRUCTION
In a field where men historically worked, it’s no surprise that women face a unique set of challenges. Women lack same-sex role models and often have difficulty finding supportive and welcoming work environments. At times they struggle to be taken seriously. But women in the industry bring a different and important dynamic to the table and often inspire a more balanced culture.
Alyssa Fordham Vagt is the design director at CRW architecture + design group. CRW has 10 employees, three of which are female. “As a woman in a predominantly male industry,” she says, “I feel the need to prove that I bring value to projects and contribute an alternative and valuable perspective.”
Pamela Krueger, owner and operator of Diamond Dust Construction and the only female drywall contractor in Rochester, agrees. “It’s a day-to-day challenge to stay relevant. But if you can conquer your fears about working in a ‘man’s world,’ being a woman in construction can be very rewarding,” she says.
Jodi Wiemerslage, president of the Southeast MN Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and project manager for Hunt Electric Corporation, explains that the biggest challenge she has observed in women is a lack of confidence. “So often I hear from female peers how hard it is to bring their knowledge to the table and feel respected by those involved,” Jodi says. “But once you get past that, the sky is the limit.”
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS HELP PAVE THE WAY
Women in building and construction are increasingly becoming the face of the companies for which they work. They are taking on leadership roles in industry associations and are actively involved in the growth and development of their communities.
“There are a lot of strong, confident women working in the industry in Rochester right now,” says Jodi, who recently won the 2015 NAWIC Future Leader of the Year award. The purpose of organizations like NAWIC is to support and promote the professional development of women in construction and provide them with educational and mentorship opportunities.
Jodi feels her role as chapter president has been of great benefit. “Our members not only raised me up to become a better leader for our chapter, but I have also become a better leader for my company.”
Rochester Area Builders (RAB) is a professional organization of commercial and residential builders, remodelers, developers and associated businesses that are working to advance the building industry in the region. And while John Eischen, the executive director of RAB, is male, he is the first to point out the important leadership role women involved in the association play.
“Just as Rochester is a leader in other industries, I believe we are a leader in the number of women involved in the construction industry,” he says. RAB has had four female presidents in its history and has elected a fifth and sixth to serve in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
Design Studio B owner Karen Blissenbach will fill that presidential role in 2017 and credits a great deal of her professional success to her involvement with RAB. “Without the Rochester Area Builders,” she says, “I don’t know if I would be where I am today.”
“We can be proud of the high percentage of women that are successful in the industry locally, both in leadership roles and in the field,” John remarks. “Women have played and will continue to play a major role in the growth of southeastern Minnesota.”
PROMISING FUTURE IN ROCHESTER
With substantial community growth projected as a result of initiatives like Destination Medical Center (DMC), Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department director Mitzi Alex Baker echoes John’s feelings about the impact those involved in building and construction will have in Rochester in the future.
“It’s an exciting time to be working in the building and construction field in Rochester,” Mitzi says. “Capitalizing on an already great community foundation, the opportunity to envision and pursue a future that offers more housing and transportation options, supports high quality of life and draws and retains employees, visitors and customers is promising.” Envisioning the future of Rochester is a consideration that permeates every step of the building and construction process, from planning and design to execution and usage.
Planning and design professional Leslie McGillivray-Rivas, WSB and Associates, understands the importance of having a vision firsthand. “My projects have included everything from single family subdivisions to commercial site plans,” she explains. Leslie’s most notable design accomplishment is the vision and master plan for the Soldiers Field Veteran’s Memorial. In 2015, the memorial celebrated its 20th year honoring veterans for their service in the Armed Forces and is recognized as one of Rochester’s most significant landmarks.
Sustainability, like vision, is a critical component in planning for the future. “At CRW, we recognize the importance of taking the future of the community into consideration when we’re planning any project,” says Alyssa Vagt. CRW architecture + design group believes in sustainable design practices as the foundation for their work. “We want to encourage building that is forward-thinking but minimizes impact on our natural resources,” Alyssa says.
GROWING NEED FOR WOMEN IN BUILDING AND CONSTRUCTION
In recent decades, there has been a diminished appreciation for the importance of skilled laborers resulting in a shortage of individuals qualified to fill those roles. But the demand is evident.
“We need women and men to choose the trades to address the shortage in our labor force,” says Jean DeWitz, owner of DeWitz Home Builders. While a college education is crucial for some careers, it can no longer be touted as the only path to professional success. There are many well-paying jobs that do not require years of college. But with shop and trade classes less common in high school curriculums, the majority of millennials have not had the exposure to tools and trades like that of previous generations. “Our society has placed so much emphasis on higher education that kids today are not choosing the trades as a career,” Jean continues.
Curriculum and instruction staff at Rochester Public Schools (RPS) is aware of the shortage of skilled laborers and works to guide students in selecting courses best suited for them, regardless of their chosen field. “We understand that the path for all students does not necessarily lead to four years in a university,” says Heather Nessler, executive director of communications for RPS, “so we continue to explore ways in which we can introduce them to a variety of career options.”
The high schools offer two career pathways, Residential Construction and Woods, for students interested in building and construction industries. Each pathway offers three successive courses and incorporates mentorship, hands-on projects and teamwork into each series.
With the highly anticipated opening of the Career and Technical Education Center (CTECH) at the Heintz Center this coming fall, RPS will be able to provide students with additional unique career pathway experiences in information technology, hospitality, manufacturing and health sciences in addition to the current pathways of engineering, construction and agriculture.
THE CHANGING FACE OF THE WORKFORCE
As the existing workforce ages, there is a conscious push within the building and construction industry to encourage and support the young persons interested in a career in the trades. “At Benike, we love opportunities to mentor,” says Brea. “I want to help girls to understand that working in construction does not necessarily mean being out in the field swinging a hammer. There are a lot of opportunities to work in an office setting as well.”
Apprenticeship and scholarship opportunities are plentiful through a number of organizations, including the RAB and NAWIC. “Nearly all of the trades offer programs in which students can work while they attend school,” says Jodi. Most of the programs provide a mixture of experiential and educational training, allowing students to earn money while they work their way through an apprenticeship.
RAB offers scholarships to both traditional and non-traditional students who want to pursue a career in building and construction. “We can be the pipeline to the employer,” says John Eischen.
While the industry’s demographics won’t change overnight, encouraging women to pursue non-traditional careers can provide them with an intrinsic sense of satisfaction and empowerment, a chance to make a visible impact on their communities and an opportunity to open doors for women in generations to come.
“If you enjoy construction and seeing the progress of building from start to finish, then go for it,” says Pamela Krueger. “Never let a man or a woman tell you that you should not be doing what you love. The reward is much greater than the effort.”
Sarah Oslund is owner of Inspire Writing & Consulting, inspiremn.net.