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In 2005, Jessica Savignano took an aptitude test and passed interviews to become a pipefitter, a tradesperson who works with mechanical piping systems.
The 5-foot-2-inch, 135 pound Savignano spent her first day moving metal decking and pipes. But the 24-year-old’s challenge wasn’t physical, it was mental. Three male coworkers were quick to advise Savignano to “Quit now … This isn’t a job for women.”
“That hurt, and I almost believed them,” recounted Savignano, who suffered through two more days on the job site before being reassigned by her union to a new location where, fortunately, she met a group of men willing guide her.
Unfortunately, Savignano’s experience isn’t an anomaly. While representing about 9 percent of construction workers, women in construction have gravitated to office positions, reinforcing the idea that they do not belong in physically demanding “trades.”
But their percentages in the trades are rising, in part due to more role models in the field and women understanding the benefits offered by the industry, said Dove Sifers-Putman, president of the National Association of Women in Construction, an organization that provides educational programs to help women rise into leadership and project management positions.
The average annual pay of a construction worker in the U.S. is $33,052, but varies by occupation, experience and location. But here’s the kicker: Women in construction earn an average of 95.7 percent of what men make—an 18 percent bump over the typical 81.1 percent wage gap found in other industries.
Plus, the industry is projected to grow at a rate of 4.5 percent over the next several years, with job opportunities across the trades, said Sifers-Putman. “There’s never been a better time to be a woman in construction,” she added.
“Construction is a career young women, their guidance counselors and their parents should be considering when they look at the options out there,” Sifers-Putman told Know Your Value.
And there is a career path for those hoping to advance. Unskilled laborers become apprentices to learn a trade like roofing, pipefitting or structural work. As an apprentice they’re supervised by a journeyman, train on the job and take courses to eventually become journeymen themselves. Some go on to become state-licensed masters, the highest trade designation.
As a journeyman plumber, Savignano worked 8 to 10 hour days and attended night school. She now manages a three-man computer-aided drafting and building information modeling team at T. Lemme Mechanical (TLM), a mechanical piping contractor in Menands, New York, and is the project engineer for several large projects.
She’s also in the process of becoming a master plumber. “I’ve learned to work smarter, not harder,” said the 37-year-old mother of two.
Anyone who’s been hooted at when walking by a construction site knows there are some drawbacks.
“Just today I heard someone say in passing they didn’t want to work with a girl, and I turned around and went “what?” said Sifers-Putman.
It’s a mindset Sifers-Putman has difficulty understanding. She grew up building “what needed to be built” around the house after her father, a coal miner, was injured on the job. “I’ve been in construction my whole life.” She started at Environamics, a contracting company, as a secretary, before moving into project management and sales. She’s been at the company for 30 years and is still often the only woman in the room or at the job site.
It’s a constant battle, seconded Savignano. “At first, the men look at you and think you don’t know anything. You constantly have to prove yourself at the beginning of every project. But I wasn’t going to let any man tell what I could be or couldn’t do,” she said.
There are other drawbacks too. Days can be long, and extremely cold or hot. It takes years of training and experience to master a craft and make top dollar. And, of course, you‘ll need to stay strong, mentally and physically.
Savignano’s father, Thomas Karmazyn, retired as a pipefitter in July 2018 from Plumbers and Steamfitters Local No. 7. He’s encouraged his daughter to build as a child, lending her tools for her first job and keeping her spirits up when the going got rough.
She’s also been supported by other women. “A female project manager ordered me a women’s harness when she saw I was using a man’s — I didn’t even realize they were gender specific.”
And she’s lent her support. Tricia Stealey, 41, was working in TLM’s office as an assistant project manager four years ago when she approached Savignano about moving into the trades. Savignano thought Stealey had the mental toughness needed and encouraged her to apply to the union. Stealey’s now completing her third year as an apprentice and is happy to be making more money and on a defined career path.
Still a career in construction is not for everyone, Savignano said. “But if you’re looking for a rewarding job, where you can build something you can put your hands on, and enjoy a daily challenge, it might be for you.”
Ready to work?
If you’d like to find out more, here are five ways to get started.
1.You’ll need a high school diploma (or GED equivalent) for entry level jobs. Skilled positions may require an associate or technical degree or even a bachelor’s degree. “Many companies want a bachelor’s degree at a minimum for positions in project management, estimating, safety, and quality control,” said Sifers-Putman.
2. Use local or niche job boards to find work. National job boards can generate thousands of responses to a single job posting, especially if they’re entry level. That’s why it’s a good idea to use local, construction-focused job boards for your job searches.
3. Be willing to start at the bottom. Construction sites will hire laborers with little or no experience to perform basic tasks, such as moving materials, cleaning, and other support duties. Starting at the bottom gets your foot in the door so you can learn how a construction site operates and what it’s like to work there.
4. Apply for an apprenticeship. Many laborers will become interested in a trade like carpentry, HVAC or plumbing and become apprentices to skilled tradesmen in that craft. Apprenticeships normally last from two to four years and can be an alternative route to a formal degree, or supplement a technical or associate degree.
5. Build your network. Studies show 85 percent of jobs are filled by an employee referral or other type of networking, so it’s critical to start building your network. People on a job site may hear about new positions before they’re posted and help you move to a new role. If you’re in school, join clubs or organizations specific to your career goal (like an engineering or project management club) to meet people interested in or already working in the field.