When it comes to gender diversity, the construction industry is an interesting study. While only about nine percent of today’s construction workforce are women (less than half of that segment are trade workers) their pay is equal to or very close to that of their male counterparts.
“The best-kept secret of the trades is that while you work hard, you also make very good money, particularly as a woman, says Angie Simon, President and CEO of Western Allied Mechanical. “Women typically get paid around 80 cents on the dollar, but they make the same as men in the trades.”
Still, more work is needed. When it comes to women in construction leadership roles, those numbers remain very low. Those long odds, however, didn’t deter Simon, who in 2019 became the first woman president in the 75-year history of the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).
Simon is an industry veteran of the highest order. She’s worked at HVAC solutions provider Western Allied for 34 years, and has served as the head of the Menlo Park-based company since 2008. Having experienced first-hand the unique challenges women pursuing construction careers face, Simon has frequently used her position to help mentor and elevate women in the industry.
Seeing is Believing
Shortly before the pandemic struck, Simon was among a group of high-ranking female panelists taking part in a women-in construction session in the Bay Area. Their stories all had one thing in common: None of them planned to be in leadership roles when they were starting out. This sparked a discussion about the importance of visibility for women in high levels of construction companies.
“We shared that story as we went through it,” Simon recalls. ‘We all kind of just worked our way to where we got. A young lady in the audience said, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand why none of you wanted to be the owner of the company. I see you guys, and that’s what I’m going to be,’ she said. And I said, ‘Well, we didn’t see anybody in that spot.’ I think it’s the next step. Now they see it and understand that it may be something that’s achievable.”
Throughout her career, Simon has developed a reputation as a strong leader with a passion for helping other women get a leg-up in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Given the relatively small number of women in her position, her counsel and insight became highly sought after by companies looking to mentor their women employees better but lacked the right personnel for the job.
“I’ve had two or three general contractors call me and ask me to mentor their young professional women who are working their way up. It’s because they have no women leaders in their organizations to mentor them,” explains Simon.
Simon encountered similar scenarios throughout her career. When she first got on the SMACNA board, she learned how many contractors were family-owned businesses, which raised a natural question in her mind.
“So I asked, ‘well, if they’re family-owned, where are all the women?’, and they all just said, ‘Well, they work in accounting.’”
“Of sheet metal contractors, around two or three percent are women in the top C-level, and if they’re in C-level, they’re often either the CFO or in an HR role. That’s about it. You still don’t find many COOs, CEOs, or presidents of companies who are women,” says Simon.
Building Diversity Through Retention
Another perennial challenge construction companies face when it comes to building a diverse workforce is retention.
“It’s great to see a diverse workforce, but unless you really make sure they feel included and welcomed, they’re not going to stay,” explains Simon. “One of the things we’ve seen is that as we’ve got women in the trades, they don’t make it through the first five years. That’s because construction has not been an inclusive environment. So we as an industry are really focused right now on figuring out how to change the whole mindset to become a much more diverse and inclusive industry.”
SMACNA Helps Ignite Careers in the Trades
The construction trades are facing a steep skilled labor shortage. Older workers continue retiring in much greater numbers than young people stepping up to replace them. Simon estimates as much as 40% of the entire industry is set to retire in the next five years. As part of SMACNA’s efforts to boost recruitment and generate more interest in construction careers, the group launched igniteyourcareer.org to help educate underrepresented groups about the opportunities that await them.
Igniteyourcareer.org also targets younger workers, whose recruitment will be essential in the coming years in order to bridge the labor gap.
“The number one complaint from all the contractors was workforce development—we’re not getting enough people in the trade. That’s why we decided to start this. IgniteYourCareer is advertising on social media, trying to hit the next generation,” Simon says.
Construction Technology Opens New Opportunities
Not everybody, particularly younger workers, wants a physically demanding job. However, Simon points out that technology has made it possible to enjoy a long and fruitful career in construction without ever swinging a hammer or strapping on a pair of work boots.
“I have detailers that are in the office all day or working remotely from home, through 3D modeling and everything else. There are many jobs which don’t require you to physically ever touch a tool, so what we’re trying to share is that there are many, many opportunities in the trades now that they haven’t seen before,” she says.
Engineering Better Environments
An alumna of the California Polytechnic State University herself, Simon says the school has been a great feeder system for finding and recruiting young talent. and yet, for a long time, it was a challenge getting these recent engineering graduates interested in HVAC work. To counteract this natural resistance, Western Allied tapped into a potent desire among younger workers to make the world a better place.
“Part of it was because, I mean, how sexy is ductwork? They’d rather go work with engines and turbines. But in the last 10 years, what we do here, Western Allied’s vision statement is ‘Engineering Better Environments.’ Our passion is to design energy-efficient buildings so that we can change the world in regard to energy, and the next generation is so passionate about taking care of the world and protecting it.”