Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Rockford Construction would have been participating in a number of activities and luncheons throughout West Michigan and across the state in observance of Women in Construction week. But to keep the spirit alive, the company offered its team — both men and women — a number of webinars and virtual meetings that celebrate the achievements of — and inspire more — women in construction.
Jennifer Boezwinkle, Rockford’s executive vice president of construction, has long been an advocate for women representation both in construction and architecture. She said the importance of Women in Construction Week is to highlight current women in construction, thereby inspiring more women and people of color to enter construction as a viable career.
“I think so often we tend to stereotype industries and roles as being either feminine or masculine … and I think that does a disservice, both to the individuals who have a passion for that kind of work, and for the industries that need that diversity of thought, that diversity of background, because we’re a problem-solving industry, and we know more problems are solved when you have diverse voices at the table,” she said.
Christa Amalio, senior project manager at Rockford, has a teenage daughter who is on the cusp of deciding what her own career will look like. For Amalio, Women in Construction Week, International Women’s Day and other events highlighting the achievements of women are important to inspiring future generations.
“With what I do, I provide this other career opportunity, and not just for (my daughter), but her friends have seen me in this role for many years, which has been just another opportunity to showcase that this is another place where you can go and be successful,” Amalio said.
Rockford Senior Superintendent Sylvia Latson echoed Amalio’s sentiment, saying her children see her working in the field with men, reading blueprints and leading the project schedule.
“They see I’m not just in an office, I’m out in the field with the guys,” Latson said. “They say, ‘Hey, if my mom can do it, I can do it too.’”
Rockford employs 10 female field workers, two of whom are fabricators, Latson added.
Recently, Amalio and another woman were setting up a reroute for construction traffic in front of an elementary school of about 500 kids, many of them girls witnessing two women on a construction project.
“Without us really realizing it, that’s part of this — showcasing women in construction,” Amalio said. “These girls were sitting in this building looking at us going, ‘Wow, there’s girls out there putting this together!’ And that’s a great opportunity for them to see that.”
With a formal degree in business, Amalio actually stumbled into her current field while working for a construction company as a teenager during the ’90s. She was sent to go pick up plans from an office, where there were several men trying to figure out the new email system.
“You have to remember this was the ’90s, and all these Windows system and email was just coming into play,” Amalio said. “They looked at me and said, ‘Can you work this?’ and I said, ‘yeah,’ (laughs) so they continued to just encourage me, and it was a great opportunity, and I fell in love with it.”
Latson also ”stumbled” into construction from a background in public administration and policy, but she was introduced to construction through an internship.
“I just said, ‘Hey, this is a male-dominated field,’” Latson said. “The engineers were all males, the construction crews were all male, and I said this might be something I want to get into.”
Latson wanted to get into construction, but the dean of her college told her they didn’t have a construction program, so she had to sit down and write a thesis and get it approved to pursue her desired career path.
“I love the planning process. I love searching for permits, inspections, doing the regulations and I just like getting my hands dirty in the field,” she said. “And I think being diverse in our background, it brings another sense to it as well — (Amalio) being in business and me being in public administration — we have a unique viewpoint … we might look at the drawings differently or contracts differently, and we can interpret them as well.”
Rockford Construction also teaches women how they can advance their careers and forms mentorships for women and people of color to help them determine their long-term career goals.
“Construction has a wide range of paths to consider, whether that’s in the office or out in the field as a trade contractor, as a superintendent, as a craftsperson,” Boezwinkle said. “We really want to make all of those roles available to women moving forward, so there is lots of conversation around what education is required, what experience is required and the variety of paths people can take within the construction industry.”
While the construction labor force as a whole took a hit from the pandemic and subsequent government freezes on construction work, the issues also pushed forward technology that supports remote work.
Boezwinkle said Rockford reconfigured itself in the midst of the pandemic to adapt to more and greater remote work among its staff.
“While in the short term it’s challenged a lot of women in their careers, with child care, schooling and those kinds of things that traditionally impact women … there is technology in place that will make work life more flexible and more adaptable for men and women, and the ability — as we like to in West Michigan — to find that work/life balance.”
A report from Construction Coverage in October 2020 found Grand Rapids exceeds the national average for women representation in construction. Although only 10.3% of workers in the U.S. construction industry are women, 11.4% of construction workers in Grand Rapids are women, accounting for 608 workers out of a 4,722-person workforce.
Boezwinkle said there has been great improvement in achieving diverse representation in construction, although it is an ongoing journey. Many young women and people of color still are not aware of the opportunities a career in construction can give them.
Boezwinkle also touted Rockford’s demographics, saying nearly 50% of the company’s executives are women.
“I think it’s important to show that career path and trajectory, that it’s not just a supporting role, although we need supporting roles within construction, that’s for sure,” she said. “It’s not just in the field — and we’ve got great field representation among our own carpenters and trades team — but it’s also at a leadership level, and there’s a really long, robust career path for women and minorities in construction.”
Amalio said she’s sat in on about 10 interviews in the past several weeks and noted the industry as a whole still is starving for talent, and the more women who can enter the field, the more readily that shortage can be filled.