One of the key economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the exodus of women from the workforce. Since the beginning of the national crisis, almost 3 million women are no longer earning a paycheck, including women who made their living in the construction industry.

Some of the change has been related to wholesale layoffs and job terminations in sectors where women—especially women of color–are overrepresented, like the service and hospitality industries.

But even in industries where women represent a smaller portion of the workforce, like construction, jobs disappeared.

The construction industry experienced a top unemployment rate of 16.6% in April 2020. By October 2020 unemployment in the construction industry was about on par with the national rate (6.8% for construction versus 6.9% overall).

And while the unemployment rate edged up to 9.5% for January 2021, that can be at least partially attributed to normal seasonal fluctuations.

Involuntary terminations and layoffs are only part of the story. Regardless of the industry they worked in, for some women, separation from their job was the result of a stark necessity. With day care and schools closed across the nation, women have been disproportionately leaving jobs to care for kids, whether they previously worked in a restaurant or in a construction field office.

What’s next for women in the construction industry?

Experts have a positive outlook for the industry this year and expect hiring to begin ramping up in the coming months. According to a survey by the Association of General Contractors, 35% of construction companies plan to increase their headcount in 2021, with a third indicating their volume of business is already either the same or better than a year ago.

However, good help may not be that easy to find.

Even prior to the pandemic, the construction industry had been wrestling with the challenges of a tight labor market, with experienced employees retiring and fewer young people entering the trades to take their place.

Women were able to fill some of the shortfall in skilled labor, and the number of women working in the industry had been growing for several years. In 2020, 10.9% of employees in the construction industry were women, which represented about 1.17 million women.

That may sound like a big number, but it’s not enough, especially if women don’t come back to work when the jobs open up. To fill immediate workforce needs in 2021 and ensure an adequate pipeline of skilled help in the coming years, the construction industry needs to continue to attract, hire and retain even more women.

And that may require some paradigm shifts or policy adjustments, especially when women have been sidelined because of childcare issues.

A family-friendly approach can pay dividends.

Employers that offer some flexibility and support for working parents may have a significant advantage when hiring new employees (regardless of gender). Examples of programs and policies that support employees with caregiving responsibilities include:

  • Flexible start or end times to enable parents to drop kids off and pick them up from school or daycare.
  • Job sharing, especially during longer summer work hours.
  • Offering a dependent care spending account to help parents save on daycare expenses.
  • The ability to use accrued sick off to care for a sick child.

Construction employers can’t afford for women to remain on the sidelines of the workforce. As hiring for jobs that get underway in the spring begins, there will likely be intense competition for a very limited labor pool. The short-term issue is that some of the experienced women not currently working may not come back to construction unless they have some meaningful incentives that address their childcare challenges. The longer-term concern is that others not yet in the industry may not see construction as a viable option for the future without some workplace changes.

With adversity comes opportunity.

COVID-19 has laid bare some challenges that can undermine the success of the economy moving forward—including issues with childcare. Now may just be the time for construction employers to begin moving the needle on flexibility and workplace policy to help bring more women into the industry and help keep them at work and productive.

According to S+P Global, workforce participation by women is an untapped economic driver across all industries. In a 2017 report, they estimated that “increased female labor force participation could accelerate U.S. GDP growth, adding a staggering $5.87 trillion to the global stock market in 10 years.”

This blog celebrates Women’s History Month and Women in Construction Week, an annual event sponsored by the National Association of Women in Construction.