President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law more than a year ago, and the roads, and bridges construction industry still hasn’t solved its labor shortage issue.
The problem has never been a secret, nor did it sneak up on the industry. Last March, 248,000 people exited the construction industry, and many of these workers retired early, according to Fixr.
The next generation hasn’t jumped to fill these vacancies. In fact, there has been an 8% decrease in construction workers between the ages of 25-54 since 2008, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).
The COVID-19 pandemic increased the problem. More than 1 million construction workers left the field in 2020 (many, again, opting for early retirement).
Although the industry has recouped roughly 67% of their workforce, they are still short about 430,000 workers, according to the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER).
Companies and organizations must have a diversified approach to hiring and recruiting workers.
One organization is ready to help the asphalt industry solve its labor shortage. Founded by Amy Miller in 2017, Women of Asphalt’s goal is to empower women with careers in this crucial aspect of the roads and bridges construction industry.
Women make up just 11% of the construction workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, most of those roles (35%) are administrative or office roles. Miller, who is the national director for the Asphalt Pavement Alliance, would like to get women working in the field and increase those numbers.
“One of the biggest challenges women face in getting into the asphalt industry is the lack of training and development opportunities,” Miller said. “Many women may not have access to the same resources and programs as men, which can make it difficult for them to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the field.”
Before launching Women of Asphalt, Miller discussed the idea with other women in the field. She wanted to create something that could not only help women, but also the asphalt industry through support, workforce development, and education.
Miller founded Women of Asphalt with lawyer Ashley Batson, engineer Audrey Copeland, Tracie Schlich, director of marketing and membership with the Asphalt Institute, and Natasha Ozybko, regional sales manager for Road Science and founder of Moxy: The Voice of Women In Infrastructure.
Women of Asphalt’s founders aimed to develop this platform to help recruit, educate, and promote women in the asphalt industry in the male dominated job market.
To achieve these goals, they are increasing awareness of opportunities in the industry, educating women about resources, and providing a platform for growth, all while leading a growing industry association. Above all else, Women of Asphalt empowers women in asphalt industry careers through the unique experiences that its leaders have gained.
Essentially, they are building a community within the asphalt industry. Women of Asphalt also breaks stereotypes about what women can and can’t do.
Women of Asphalt created a mentorship program to guide women who are at the beginning of their career or who are trying to advance in their careers. The mentors provide advice and support, and they pass along the knowledge and experience they have gained while building a professional network.
Miller said she has seen an increase of women entering and advancing in the asphalt industry since the inception of Women of Asphalt. The organization’s membership has grown to almost 3,000 in five years.
“It is clear that Women of Asphalt plays a crucial role in promoting and supporting the inclusion and advancement of women in the asphalt industry,” Miller said.
Asphalt companies will benefit from diversifying their roster. Not only will they be adding skilled workers to their workforce, which is desperately needed in these trying times, but according to research from McKinsey & Company, companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 25% more likely to increase their profits.
“It's important for companies to recognize that diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do but also, it's beneficial for business growth and development,” said Miller. “With a diverse workforce, companies can benefit from a variety of perspectives and ideas, leading to better decision making and increased innovation.”
On average, women do not have the same access to resources and programs that men do, making it difficult for them to grow and succeed in the industry that is desperate for workers.
“We need to understand that women need to continue their business development and focus on whatever traits they have that are different from men that they can learn and grow from,” said Victoria Taffet, a board member from Women of Asphalt and director of corporate social responsibility for Colas USA.
If companies and organizations in the industry provided proper training, advancement opportunities, and a culture of inclusion and diversity, it would not only attract women to the field, but also other groups of workers who are needed to solve the labor shortage.
Having advancement opportunities is a critical step because worker retention has been a huge problem in the industry.
“Providing additional support within the organization, whether it’s leadership development skills, business skills, or mentorship programs to help sort out their path will help,” Taffet said. “Really, just having a support system will help with retention.”
Ensuring that workers are taken care of in their development, whether they’re male or female, will ensure that skilled workers stay and grow. But these may not be the only reasons women aren’t running to work in the asphalt industry.
Outdated stereotypes and biases can plague organizations that are trying to fill their roster.
“One of the biggest challenges that organizations face is understanding your personal awareness around possible biases that we hold,” said Taffet. “I think for helping women within the industry, recognizing unconscious bias helps. We need to make sure they feel included, and that they’re not treated differently.”
There are outdated notions that women can’t contribute to a particular workforce has been debunked time after time, yet these ideas still impact the construction industry. If women have the same training as men, are included in the process, and are given the same resources and development as their male counterparts, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Organizations within the asphalt industry need to understand the benefits of diversifying their company culture and having women join the workforce.
Although women have worked in the asphalt industry for decades, they are sometimes overlooked or not given the proper training and guidance to help succeed. But now that the IIJA is law, and the labor shortage could potentially harm infrastructure projects, organizations might want to listen to organizations like the Women of Asphalt. R&B