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Highlighting the Crucial Role of Women in Construction

9 Mar 2022

It was more than 20 years ago but Leah Hagen remembers the moment clear as day. Still new to the equipment industry and new to her company, Leah was in her first days of a brand-new role as an Inventory Analyst, and getting more hands-on working with equipment, customers, and partners. Her first call that day was to an attachment company.

“I was transferred to an executive to discuss the order,” she said. “It was a woman and, after she heard my voice, her first comment was how happy she was to hear me, that another woman was working in construction.”

That conversation took place more than two decades ago, yet Leah recalls it like it happened yesterday.

Today, Leah is the rental support manager for RDO Equipment Co., an equipment dealership. She leads the team that provides support for rental operations across the company’s 75 locations. When she began her career two decades ago, she had no industry experience. Add to that she was coming into a male-dominated industry, it is easy to understand why that one phone call meant so much to her.

“It was at that moment, I really felt like I was in the right place,” she said.

Women in Construction
According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), women working in the industry is on the rise. The of women in the industry passed one million in 2018, a number that previously peaked in 2006 at 1.13 million.

Even with growth trending in the right direction, there is room for more. Women are a great resource for talent to fill the thousands of open jobs the industry has today – and the thousand more it will have a few years from now.

In celebration of March’s Women in Construction Week, four women in rental roles at RDO share their stories of finding their place in the construction industry. They offer a few thoughts on their experiences that may help other companies that see the potential and opportunity of bringing more women into construction careers.  

Representation Matters
Most people likely don’t picture a woman first when thinking about the construction industry. That is not an unfair perception. NAWIC shows women make up only 10% of the workforce and, of that number, just 1% are working on jobsites.

Luckily for Jessi Duckett, she wasn’t afraid of standing out in a crowd. When she joined the industry as a Rental Sales Professional for RDO, she knew she’d be a fish out of water – in more ways than one.

“It’s rare to see women on the jobsite so my team was honest with me that there may be some men who wouldn’t want to work with me,” she said.

An additional hill for Jessi to climb was the fact she came to RDO with no construction background. Like Leah, she took a leap of faith joining the industry, admitting, “I didn’t know a yellow machine from an orange one.” But what she did have was a strong sales background, a great track record of building relationships, and the competitive drive to succeed.

Even though she is less than one year into her career, Jessi has made a significant impact on her customers and the company. She quickly learned the ropes and used her exceptional relationship-building skills to establish new partnerships and strengthen many existing customer relationships.

Jessi’s experience highlights a major challenge for women getting into the construction industry. The lack of representation can discourage women from seeing construction as a realistic career.

While Jessi did not experience issues being accepted in the industry, had it not been for her husband working at RDO and encouraging her to join the company, she admits she may not have thought of construction as place for her.

Angela Nelson, a Rental Dispatcher for RDO in Lakeside, California, agrees that representation is a big barrier to entry for many.

“It sounds simple but I think women need to see other women working in construction,” she said.

As someone who has been in the industry more than two decades, Angela is pleased to say that things are trending in the right direction. She has seen “tremendous” growth of women in the industry since she began her career but believes there is room for more.

Recruiting Women to Construction
Angela’s career in the equipment industry spans two decades, with her exposure to construction going back to childhood, when her father was a project manager at a construction company.

“I have three brothers. I am the only one who followed my father into the construction industry,” she said. “My dad was so supportive and is so proud. After all these years, he still loves to brag about his daughter who works for an equipment company.”

Her background is also why she is passionate about exposing more women to the industry. Even though she grew up with close ties to the industry and had the family support to pursue a career in construction, she admits she never saw it as a place to build her career until later in life.

“Women just weren’t doing it,” she recalls. A move to California 20 years ago resulted in a chance opportunity to work for a drywall company. Angela quickly discovered she liked the work and the industry. But it wasn’t until five years later, when she began working for a rental company that she finally met women in the industry.  

“I felt a connection to them, it was a real ‘ah ha’ moment for me,” she said, describing a similar experience to Leah’s of feeling support and belonging. “That is why I believe it is so important for women to be out there, be visible. Let the next generation know that this is the place for them.”

Angela believes that once women get into the industry, there is great potential for them to stay.

“I have seen the enthusiasm women have when they join the industry,” she said. “Their excitement getting to know the machines, learning how to drive a forklift, they are so proud of what they’re doing.  But first we have to get them interested, show them that this is a place they can be successful.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity to encourage this interest lies within each and every company. At least, that is what Kelly Payne has to thank for her entry into the equipment industry.

About five years ago, Kelly had reached a point in her career that she was ready to make a change. With no background or experience in the construction industry, one would not have assumed her to be a likely candidate to make the move into construction. A nudge from one influential woman helped her take the leap.

“My best friend works for RDO and encouraged me to consider it,” she said.

Right away, Kelly felt welcome in her role as a Rental Dispatcher and as though she was being set up for success. She credits everyone, from the team working in the yard, all the way up to the Leadership team, with helping her learn the equipment, customers, and the industry.

The Rewards of a Job Well Done
All four women had different paths to the construction rental industry, yet all four have one thing in common: they chose construction as their career and stayed because of the environment, rewards, and opportunities to grow, advance, and be successful.

If anyone had a silver bullet to solve the labor shortage, they’d be rich and we wouldn’t be talking about it every day. While bringing more women into construction isn’t the only solution, it is part of the solution. Every company and person in the industry can do their part to encourage women on the path to construction jobs and help them succeed.

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