September 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Efforts expand to make construction viable career choice for more women

Anne White, right, and Felicia Zerilli, second from left, take a coffee break in New York. They are two of 220 women in the 7,000 member Laborers Local 79 union. (Julie Jacobson / AP)

New York— Janice Moreno graduated from college with a degree in English literature, but never landed a job paying more than $12 an hour. Now, at 36, she’s back in the classroom — in safety glasses and a T-shirt — learning how to be a carpenter.

“I believe it’s going to pay off,” she said amid instruction in sawing techniques.

If Moreno’s six-week training program in New York City leads to a full-time job, she’ll have bucked long odds. On this Labor Day weekend, ponder the latest federal data: About 7.1 million Americans were employed in construction-related occupations last year — and only 2.6 percent were women.

That percentage has scarcely budged since the 1970s, while women have made gains since then in many other fields.

The reasons for the low numbers include a dearth of recruitment efforts aimed at women and hard-to-quash stereotypes that construction work doesn’t suit them. Another factor, according to a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center, is pervasive sexual harassment of women at work sites.

“It’s not surprising that the construction trades are sometimes called ‘the industry that time forgot,’ ” said Fatima Goss Graves, the center’s vice president for education and employment. “It’s time for this industry to enter the modern era — to expand apprenticeships and training opportunities for women, hire qualified female workers and enforce a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment.”

The Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, a nonprofit which offers training programs such as the one taken by Moreno, has arrangements with several unions to take women directly into apprenticeships — at a starting wage of around $17, plus benefits. After four or five years, they can attain journeyman status, with hourly pay of $40 or more.

The industry’s management insists it would welcome more women.

“Most of our members are desperate to hire people,” said Brian Turmail, public affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of America. “They’re looking for any candidate who’s qualified to come and join the team — women, minorities, veterans.”

The Labor Department plans to award $100 million in grants this year for apprenticeship programs that expand opportunities for women and minorities.

“The reality is that the face of apprenticeship in the construction industry has been white male,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview. “We’re working to ensure the future reflects the face of America.”

Regarding sexual harassment, the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has pledged to crack down on contractors who fail to prevent serious abuses.