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Partnership prepares women for top jobs in construction field

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Construction statistics:

- In 2008, there were an estimated 7.2 million wage and salary jobs in the construction industry, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

- Women comprise about 10 percent of the overall construction industry workforce, data from the National Association of Women in Construction shows.

- Women-owned construction firms increased 20 percent from 1997 to 2002, industry data shows.

- Employment in the construction industry is expected to increase 19 percent through the year 2018, according to government data.

PHOENIX – Rebecca Freitas squinted in the blistering sun and pushed up her blue hard hat as Dave Benjamin explained construction of an elevated railway at Sky Harbor International Airport.

“See there?” said Benjamin, a project superintendent for Hensel Phelps Construction Co., lead contractor on the Sky Train project. “What we’re looking at is that horizontal piece – there’s a small piece of deck where the train will run across.”

Freitas and fellow Arizona State University student Josephine Bierwagen peppered Benjamin with questions, looking forward to a day when they may run sites like this or operate their own construction firms.

They are among 16 students enrolled in the Advancing Women in Construction program at ASU’s Del E. Webb School of Construction.

The program, in its third year, places female students in internships, offers tours and exposes women to the variety of jobs in construction. It also pairs young women studying construction management with women who are leaders in the field.

Freitas said spending time with industry leaders has been especially helpful.

“The program has shown me that there are women who have been successful in construction and who have made it as company owners and CEOs,” she said.

Construction firms see the benefits of increasing what now is a small share of jobs held by women, said Carol Warner, president and chief operating officer of Johnson Carlier, an Arizona-based contractor.

“They want diversity within their organizations,” said Warner, who was part of a committee that organized the program. “They understand that women can bring a different perspective from a business standpoint, from a client-relations standpoint.”

Dawn Rogers, a recruiter for the construction school, said the program prepares women to succeed in the male-dominated field by making them stronger and teaching them to believe in themselves.

“They are going to fight against being young, and being a woman, so they have double jeopardy against them,” Rogers said. Women comprise about 15 percent of students at the Del E. Webb School of Construction, but the school hopes to increase that to 30 percent in the next few years, Rogers said.

“Having the support of leaders in the industry is crucial,” she said. “They have fought their way to become what they are today.”

Freitas said she was first drawn to construction as she watched her dad paint at job sites. She liked what she saw, but she knew she wanted to go to college.

“I really liked what he did, but I wanted to go into the professional side of the industry,” she said. “I like how everything is in phases; you can’t lay the walls without designing the foundation.”

Although construction-related jobs have been hard hit by the recession, the industry is still one of the largest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment in construction is expected to increase 19 percent through the year 2018, government data shows.

Bierwagen said she isn’t worried about finding a job when she graduates because of the strong network she has developed through mentoring program.

“The industry still supports us,” Bierwagen said. “For a lot of the students, especially ones like myself who get really involved and really want the jobs, the jobs are out there for us.”