Northern Michigan University's Heidi Blanck and Kathy Richards personify the success women can achieve in the construction, engineering, design and trades industries. Blanck is an associate professor in NMU's construction management program. Richards is associate vice president for Engineering and Planning/Facilities. Each gave a recent presentation encouraging other women to explore related career opportunities as part of the Build Initiative's “Project Accelerate” program.
The eight-week program runs through Jan. 15. Its lectures, hands-on activities and site visits/project tours are typically held in southeast Detroit. The transition to a virtual format this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled it to more than double its audience and extend its geographic reach. Participation has also expanded to include high school students and guidance counselors.
Blanck's presentation addressed the history of women in construction and her past professional experience. She also provided an overview of titles and tasks associated with project management, or achieving objectives related to scope, cost, timeline and quality.
In discussing her current role as a faculty member, Blanck promoted Northern's new online construction management bachelor's degree program. The alternative to the existing on-campus program is tailored to those with entry-level industry experience who seek advancement potential. It will launch in January through NMU's Global Campus, a day sponsor of Project Accelerate.
“Women have made inroads in the field,” Blanck said. “Our female students are always placed just as quickly as male students. There's huge demand, but industry-wide, females comprise about 9% of the workforce across all levels of construction, from labor to executive leadership. We want to see that ratio increase.
“Some women still feel it's a gender-traditional field, but it's not. The biggest thing is overcoming that perception and convincing women it's a viable and lucrative career option. Our students leave NMU and earn $60,000 or more in the first year. Whether women enter the field via the trades after high school or with a college degree, the goal is to empower them with knowledge of the opportunities available to them.”
In her presentation, Richards explained the educational and career pathways she took en route to her position at NMU. She praised Project: Accelerate! for its collaborative outreach, engagement, training and mentoring initiatives designed to increase female representation in the field.
“I have been in the construction industry for over 30 years, specifically in the design and project management field,” Richards said. “Through those years, I have worked with many successful women who have held positions in each of those fields and I encourage others to join us. It has been a very rewarding experience being a part of major physical changes, not only on NMU's campus but in the community.”
Tony Retaskie is executive director of the U.P. Construction Council, which represents the trades and frequently partners with NMU. He gave a Project Accelerate presentation titled “Women of Steel,” a phrase borrowed from the Steelworkers local in Negaunee. Retaskie talked about the importance of mining and shared examples of women who work in the industry, ranging from heavy equipment operators to environmental scientists to corporate executives.
Before the pandemic, Retaskie had been in preliminary discussions with Rita Brown, founder and national director of Project Accelerate, about possibly setting up a similar program in the Upper Peninsula.
“Rita would like that because she's a strong advocate for women in the construction industries and Project Accelerate is spreading beyond Detroit to other areas,” he said. “We're just getting our feet wet with it in the U.P. Heidi Blanck has been generous with her time in helping to move it along and we have several women in the construction trades who would be willing to assist in training and mentoring.
“We always welcome women in the construction trades in the U.P., but we're not seeing as many as we'd like. Some fields seem to draw more representation—mainly operating engineers and carpenters, followed by electricians. There are women who've gone through U.P. apprenticeship programs doing extremely well and making good money. One thing we're very proud of is that the pay is gender-neutral; there's no disparity between men and women doing the same work.”
According to its website, the Build Initiative (BUILD) is dedicated to transformative solutions on issues impacting women and other underrepresented minorities in construction and related fields. It designs grassroots-level outreach, training and mentoring initiatives to facilitate pathways to career opportunities and advancement.