Women make up only 2.2% of tradespeople in the construction industry, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training. In these days when construction firms are facing severe shortages in the work force, actively recruiting women would seem a logical place to begin looking for workers. Alise Martiny is doing her part.
Martiny came into the concrete industry in 1982 as a concrete finisher apprentice. She worked for commercial concrete contractors in the Kansas City area for many years, eventually ending up doing mostly decorative concrete work. “I worked the trade with my tools for 13 years but what I really wanted to do was to teach individuals about the construction industry by running the preapprenticeship program for the local union. I applied for that job and was not supposed to get it — a man was supposed to get it — but I went in and sold myself and told them what I could do to improve the program and by the grace of god I got the job.”
“We have to get outside the box about who to hire,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to meet the demand. There are goals here in Kansas City on projects over $300k to have the workforce be at least 2% female and we barely meet that. There’s going to be a lot of work in this town over the next year and my goal is that the workforce on those projects should look like the community in which they are being built, so we have to recruit females and minorities. We’re competing with other occupations like law enforcement. We’ve got to market ourselves better and let young people know there are opportunities. We’ve got to change the mindset. Why go to college and come out with a $60,000 loan and not be able to find a decent job when you can work as an apprentice for four years and have a $60,000 job at the end?”
Martiny is an unabashed proponent of union labor and feels the union has been a very positive force in attracting women. “In 1980, I dropped out of college and got into a preappretice program that was funded through the federal government to get more minorities and females into the trades. I applied and got into to see if I would like it. I have worked with open shop contractors, but in 1980 I don’t think an open-shop contractor would have given the opportunity to a female and I’m not sure it’s that different today. Organized labor supplies health and benefits and pension and I don’t know that I would have gotten into construction without that piece being there.”
As a woman working in construction, Martiny faced some doubts, even from her own father. “My dad was a concrete finisher and he had a difficult time with me being 18 and trying to get into the field he was in. He called the apprenticeship coordinator and said he wasn’t going to babysit me. It was really the best thing for me. I had to develop a good work ethic. I knew my dad came home each evening and his clothes were filthy and he was very tired. I had never worked in construction so it was unusual. Now it’s a little more acceptable but not back then.”
A woman on a construction project is always noticed and sometimes there can be some subtle harassment. “Every time you show up on a new project you have to prove yourself. In the 80s and early 90s there were some things. No one likes going into the portapotty and seeing your name on the wall but I didn’t worry about it. You have to develop a thick skin and you have to stand up for yourself. It’s not nearly as prevalent today as it used to be. No one wants an atmosphere where their daughters or wives are not accepted and able to work. I mentor a lot of girls and if something happens they call me and we walk them through it—confront the person and talk to your super. I don’t really think that it’s more prevalent in construction than in other industries.”
Today, Martiny has moved out of the field and into more of a training and recruiting role. “What I really love to do is teach individuals about the construction industry.” Her MAGIC program (Mentoring a Girl in Construction) sponsored by the National Association of Women in Construction is playing an important role in bringing in girls early to show them that construction is a viable ambition. She also goes to career fairs for girls. Our industry needs more women like her.