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 anticipate a lot of hard work," she said amid instruction in sawing techniques. "I believe it's going to pay off."
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. Even in firefighting – where they historically were unwelcome – women comprise a greater share of the workforce at 3.5 percent.
Why the low numbers, in an industry abounding with high-paying jobs that don't require a college degree? Reasons 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 denigration and 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."
Efforts to accomplish those goals are more advanced in New York than in many parts of the country, with pledges by unions, employers and city officials to boost women's share of construction jobs. One key player is Nontraditional Employment for Women, a nonprofit which for three decades has been offering training programs such as the one taken by Janice Moreno.
Known as NEW, the organization has arrangements with several unions to take women directly into their multiyear apprenticeships – at a starting wage of around $17, plus benefits – once they complete the training. After four or five years, they can attain journeyman status, with hourly pay of $40 or more.
Kathleen Culhane, NEW's interim president, said more than 1,000 graduates of the program have obtained apprenticeships since 2005, and women now comprise 12 to 15 percent of the apprentices with leading laborers' and carpenters' unions in the city.
Thanks to support from foundations, employers and government contracts, NEW covers all costs for the women taking its programs, including transit fares to and from the headquarters in Manhattan. Students must have high school or GED diplomas and be able to carry 50-pound loads.
On a recent class day, Moreno and about 20 other students were learning carpentry techniques from 67-year-old Howie Rotz, who's been teaching since retiring eight years ago from a carpentry career.
"Women have a good work ethic," he said. "They're very serious."
Another instructor, Kathleen Klohe, worked as a roofer and a unionized carpenter before joining NEW after the recession hit in 2008.
"Did I come across sex discrimination? Once or twice," she said. "A few times, I got the sense that I was not wanted, but I kept on. I knew what I was doing."
She encourages her students' interest in construction, while advising that it requires "a certain mental strength."
Beyond learning job skills, NEW students do role-playing to get ready for challenges in dealing with future co-workers. Among the topics, Moreno said, is how to distinguish between flagrant sexual harassment that should be reported, as opposed to less egregious behavior that perhaps should be endured.
"They want us to be prepared for the possibility we won't be liked, or we'll be the only woman on the job," Moreno said. "If you complain too quickly, your job can be at risk."
One of NEW's union partners is Laborers Local 79. Its business manager, Mike Prohaska, said the local had about 220 women at last count – 3.1 percent of the roughly 7,000 active members. Of its current apprentices, about 12 percent are women.
"The women by and large are very well accepted," Prohaska said. "To survive, they have to toe the line... As long as they're real workers, nobody minds having them."
If young women considering a construction career are in search of a role model, Holley Thomas might fit the bill.
She took up welding at a community college in Alabama, landed a job in 2009 with construction giant KBR Inc., and in 2010 became the first woman to take first place in welding at the Associated Builders and Contractors' National Craft Championships – a competition dating back to 1987.
Thomas, now 29, has worked her way up to foreman and is supervising a 10-worker welding crew at a KBR project in West Palm Beach, Florida. She speaks occasionally to high school girls, who are impressed by her paycheck that averages more than $2,000 a week and what she calls "my toys" – a Harley-Davidson, a Mustang and a Jeep Wrangler.
Thomas knows that harassment exists within the construction industry, but says she's experienced none of it at KBR. She's impressed by the efforts of some companies to recruit more women and minorities, though the pace of change is slower than she'd like.
"The biggest issue is getting through to the parents of the kids, the counselors at the schools and making clear that construction is a viable career," she said.
From an older generation, Mary Battle also has succeeded with a construction career, although she says it required unwavering tough-mindedness.
Now 50, Battle has been working in cement masonry for 30 years and in 2012 became the first woman elected as business manager of Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 891 in Washington, D.C. Under her leadership, the number of women in the local has risen from five to 12, but she doesn't believe that most construction unions nationwide are committed to boosting the ranks of women.
"Men don't perceive of women as someone coming to work, they perceive of women as a sex object," Battle said. "I set rules from the beginning: 'Don't touch me.' You have to be prepared to set a man in his place."
For younger women considering a construction career, Battle tells them: "The job is not physically hard, it's mentally hard."
"No matter how much negativity you get, keep on the job and don't quit – that's my motto," she said.
Battle, a mother of six, credits a devoted baby-sitter with helping her cope with the long hours she sometimes faced as a mason. Many construction jobs start in early morning, and it can be crucial for mothers in the workforce – especially single moms – to arrange for early-morning child care. Mothers can also find it difficult to accept temporary jobs requiring lengthy travel from their homes.
Another challenge, for women who complete apprenticeships, is to get assigned their fair share of working hours. It's a problem severe enough drive some women out of the field, according to Elly Spicer, who worked for 11 years as a carpenter and now is director of training at a technical college affiliated with New York City carpenters unions.
"You'll find, unquestionably, that women get access to less hours than men, even though they get same wages and benefits," said Spicer 57. "You can't do this working six months of the year."
Spicer said she was mostly treated with respect during her carpentry career in the 1980s and '90s, but she knew of other women who quit because of constant pressure to prove themselves.
"Every crew was different," she said. "You could have an enlightened foreman, while another might be patronizing. You still find that variation today – good old sexism still rears its ugly head sometimes."
At the highest level, the management side of the construction industry 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."
Turmail suggested that most women aren't tempted by construction careers, while those who are interested might be hampered by a nationwide cutback in school-based vocational programs.
"It's not a question of folks not wanting women – it's women not wanting to work in construction," he said. "We would love to see the numbers change. It's the right thing to do and we really need the people."
Turmail's association, and many of its chapters across the country, are undertaking educational campaigns and recruiting programs aimed at diversifying the construction workforce. Similar initiatives are being pushed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which assists employers with workforce development programs.
Jennifer Wilkerson, the center's marketing director, said the best recruiters of women are other women who've already succeeded in the field. They can speak in detail about the many construction specialties – such as welding and crane-operating – that women can master.
"A lot of times, we think of heavy lifting – the labor side of it – but that doesn't represent the full spectrum of jobs," said Wilkerson. "Once women know there's a place for them, and something they really can do well, they love it."
The Department of Labor is stepping up its involvement with plans to award $100 million in grants this year for apprenticeship programs that expand opportunities for women and minorities. Some of the grants targeting women call for providing child-care assistance when needed.
"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."
A crucial step, Perez said, is to raise awareness about the dearth of women in construction, and to highlight the successes of the relatively small number of women who've thrived in the sector.
"Women are good at this," he said. "They've punched a ticket to the middle class and speak with great pride of the barriers they've overcome. They are the pioneers, and they want the cavalry to come."
Among those impatient with the slow pace of change is Susan Eisenberg, a resident artist/scholar at Brandeis University who worked as a construction industry electrician for 15 years, starting in 1978. She published an acclaimed book in 1998, titled "We'll Call You If We Need You," based on her interviews with other women in construction.
Eisenberg has argued that women's share of the construction workforce should be far higher than it is – perhaps 25 percent instead of 2.6 percent.
"It's out of step with so much of what's going on," she said. "Women are now much more physically fit than my generation. They're 15 percent of the military."
Eisenberg suggests that both management and unions should be trying harder to recruit women. And she says government agencies could improve the situation with tougher enforcement of anti-discrimination policies.
"People who think they will be held accountable will change," she said.
Under current conditions, she says, women may be accepted as apprentices, but then cut short their careers because of discrimination.
"We've moved from a closed door to a revolving door," Eisenberg said.
In the recent National Women's Law Center report, New Yorker Patricia Valoy, who studied construction management and engineering at Columbia University, described sustained harassment that she encountered during a construction apprenticeship.
"Men would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle," Valoy recounted. "On a few occasions I got called a 'bitch' for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks... I worked on the site for a year until the stress of constantly being harassed, belittled and intimidated was not worth the effort."
The Labor Department is well aware of the harassment problem, and its Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has pledged to crack down on federal contractors who fail to prevent serious abuses.
"Ending blatant discrimination that excludes women from working in construction and increasing their representation in the industry is long overdue," wrote Donna Lenhoff, the compliance office's senior civil rights adviser, in a blog post.
In one case this year, the office determined that three female carpenters with a Puerto Rico construction company were sexually harassed, subjected to retaliation, and denied work hours comparable to those of their male counterparts. At times, the company failed to provide the women with a restroom, and they had to relieve themselves outdoors, the office said.
Under a conciliation agreement, the company agreed to pay $40,000 to the three workers and develop anti-harassment policies.
In another recent case, involving L&M Construction of Capitol Heights, Maryland, federal investigators found pervasive sexual harassment, including lewd acts, sexual gestures, and propositions directed at female employees. The federal office said the company unlawfully fired nine employees, including several men, for opposing the hostile work environment at sites in the Washington, D.C., area. The company agreed to pay back wages to the fired workers and pay for an assessment of its employment and anti-harassment policies.
Statistically, it appears that progress is being made. Construction consistently rates among the top 10 employment sectors with the most sexual-harassment allegations filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the numbers have declined in recent years – from 416 in 1999 to 132 in 2012.
"I love my trade very much. I love watching nothing become something," union leader Mary Battle told the National Women's Law Center. "They'll harass and belittle you... But we must stick with it, or else things won't ever get better for women on the job."