Building Up Women: How a local company is bringing more women to the construction trades

At Windemuller, hiring more women has become a priority in recent years.

Windemuller is a Grand Rapids-headquartered construction company that specializes in electrical work, automation, information technology, outdoor utilities, communications, renewable energy and more. The company has numerous offices throughout Michigan, including one in Traverse City.

The company’s push to recruit, retain, and develop a more gender-diverse team was driven first by an overall shortage in skilled trades professionals, said Executive Vice President Jim Rose, who is locally based.

Rose

“Across the skilled trades, it’s really hard to fill the gap between the amount of work out there and the amount of manpower we need to get the work done,” Rose said. “That becomes increasingly a motivation to bring new people into the workforce.”

Windemuller has monthly meetings with its HR team to talk about retaining, recruiting and projecting its workforce needs. “It became more apparent as we kept meeting,” said Rose, “that we needed to be more intentional about diversifying our workforce.”

According to Bureau of Labor statistics, there are approximately 7.2 million construction jobs in the United States. Only about 10% of those jobs are filled by women.

Across all industries, statistics have shown that having a gender-diverse team can be good for business. According to a study conducted by the Peterson Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on international economics, businesses that land in the top 25% of their industry in terms of gender diversity are nearly 50% more likely to beat average performance metrics for that industry.

Yet, in spite of these statistics, construction has remained a heavily male-dominated industry. The same is true for most of the skilled trades. While it remains to be seen how the coronavirus and the subsequent economic fallout will affect industries like construction, recent economic growth has created a sizable shortfall between the number of skilled trades jobs available and the number of qualified professionals to fill those jobs.

A 2018 study conducted by professional services firm Deloitte predicted that the shortage would leave 2.4 million skilled trades jobs unfilled by 2028. For companies like Windemuller, that situation means a fundamental shift in hiring approach and strategy.

“In the past, we waited for resumes or candidates to come in, or we would work with the trade schools to recruit students,” Rose said. “Those types of candidates don’t fill the void anymore, so we wanted to be more purposeful in reaching out and trying to identify things we could do to bring more people into our organization, specifically with women.”

Novack

Sometimes, that has meant fostering talent in unexpected places. Case in point is Jessica Novack, a Traverse City resident and Windemuller’s first-ever female project manager. Getting to that place of leadership in a male-dominated industry wasn’t a part of the plan for Novack – at least not initially. In fact, when Novack first went to work for Windemuller in 2011, her thought was to use it as a temporary job to help her pay her way through an accounting degree at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC).

Windemuller didn’t have any job openings at the time, but hired Novack anyway. “I kind of fell into this field,” Novack said. “I didn’t really plan on working in the construction or electrical industry.”

Novack’s parents were both in the trades, but that field was not in Novack’s sights … at first. “My dad always worked in plumbing and mechanical and my mom did construction cleaning, but I didn’t really ever think about going into the trades at first,” she said. “But then I needed a job, so I applied, and then I found out that I really liked it. I kept wanting to learn more and more.”

Novack’s passion for learning and growing in her job led her from an assistant/receptionist role in the early days to six years as an electrical designer. She finished her accounting degree at NMC in 2012 but ultimately decided to stay with Windemuller rather than pursue a career in that field. In 2015, she went back to NMC to get an associate’s degree in construction management. And in 2017, she got the project manager promotion and spearheaded her first project for Windemuller.

Now, Novack is trying to pay it forward by encouraging more women to go after jobs within the skilled trades. Over the past year, she’s been a big part of Windemuller’s “Building Up Women” initiative, a series of networking events held throughout Michigan that have put the spotlight on women in construction.

The three-part series started in Grand Rapids last year, continued in Midland, and concluded at Traverse City’s Little Fleet on Thursday, March 5. While Windemuller organized the events – with Novack as one of the main speakers – Rose says that what made the effort truly special was cross-organizational collaboration.

For each event, Windemuller partnered with other local businesses in the construction sector to help expand the reach and impact. In northern Michigan, partners included Team Elmer’s, Grand Traverse Construction, D&W Mechanical, Hallmark Construction, Dan Vos Construction Company, Northern Building Supply and others.

“It’s unlike any other effort we’ve ever done,” Rose said of the Building Up Women series. “Instead of it being something we did on our own that was relatively self-serving, we were working a lot more collaboratively to make a difference in the industry.”

The message to the attendees was simple, said Rose. “The message, the takeaway, and the ask of everyone attending those events was to reach out to another woman – whether it’s to your daughter, your niece, or your next-door neighbor – and make sure they understand the opportunities that exist in the skilled trades,” he said. “We’re not just trying to bring people into our company. We’re really working to show all the different opportunities that are out there.”

When asked what advice she would give to women or girls looking at careers in the trades, Novack says the big thing is to stay confident in your own talent, intelligence and ability to make a positive difference.

“Don’t let the men intimidate you,” she said. “Be confident that you can do the same things that they can do, and that you bring a different perspective and a different set of skills to the table.”

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