Black Women Carving Out Niche in Construction Industry

Dorothy Rowley | 6/13/2012, 11:21 a.m.

"Especially looking back to 20 or 30 years ago when it was whether or not women were qualified to work in this industry. But if you're prepared, nowadays I think it's a lot easier than it was then."

Yet McKissack said she doesn't believe many of the barriers which have kept women out of construction have been razed.

"Being a woman really is about doing anything in a male-dominated society. Our industry is a little bit more stringent than others, but it's just a matter of [us women] being strong from within and believing in ourselves."

Ann McNeill, president of the Miami, Fla.-based MCO Construction and Services, who visited the District recently to participate in Industry Day at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest, agreed.

McNeill encourages black women already in the field without college degrees, to aim at running their own businesses. She said those who pull themselves up by their own boot straps to become entrepreneurs, can in turn, hire college graduates to run their businesses for them.

"To me, that's what the construction industry offers with no barriers," said McNeill. She added that the National Association of Black Women in Construction, of which she is a member, exists because of the significant number of African-American females who have opted for careers in construction.

"We are letting young girls know that they don't have to wear a hard hat," said McNeill, who has 40 years of experience. In this industry, in addition to being brick layers or carpenters, they can also be a lawyer or a corporate executive."

McNeill, 58, has a master's degree and two general contracting licenses. So, she doesn't condone students dropping out of school to enter the workforce. However, she said there are black women who are working right now as laborers, sweeping floors making $15 an hour. McNeill explained that even if students who want to go into construction have dropped out of high school, they can still get training that gets them in the door.

"They don't have to go back to high school. They just have to decide what kind of training they want in the industry, and then focus their energy on that," she said. "Trade schools are now becoming the thing of the future, because a lot of young people are thinking why go to college and acquire huge amounts of debt, when they can go to a trade school with significantly less debt."

Shelly Karriem, manager of the Academy of Construction & Design at Cardozo, said that about 50 girls enrolled for the 2011-12 academic year.

Karriem added that she often encourages her young female proteges to explore their options.

"When we first started [recruiting female students], we had to pull teeth to get them to come along because many thought you couldn't be feminine and fit in this industry. But that's just a myth," Karriem said. "One of the things I often tell my students is that one of the best things that can happen on a construction site is to have a black woman aboard."