Women Wear Hard Hats Too

By Lorie Hailey

Sarah Murphy Ford, vice president of Hartz Contracting, discusses plans with Lee Edwards, superintendent and his construction crew onsite  at a Logan Aluminum project.
Sarah Murphy Ford, vice president of Hartz Contracting, discusses plans with Lee Edwards, superintendent and his construction crew onsite at a Logan Aluminum project.

When we envision construction workers, we picture men in hard hats, operating heavy equipment or perhaps directing traffic. In recent years, however, more and more of the Kentuckians in those iconic hats are women, tackling various construction roles from CEO to laborer.

It still is a male-dominated field: In 2014, about 9 percent of U.S. construction jobs were held by women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but there seems to have been a paradigm shift in the attitudes about women’s roles in the industry. While state figures are not available, those working directly in construction in Kentucky say there are increasingly more women in construction careers, and the industry has not only embraced them but benefitted from the diversity they bring.

One measure of this is at the educational level: Enrollment by females in Eastern Kentucky University’s construction management degree program has increased dramatically the past decade, according to program coordinator Scott Arias. EKU’s program was the first accredited in Kentucky (in 1977) and one of the oldest in the country. The largest such program in the Kentucky-Tennessee-Ohio region, it has produced 19 CEOs and had nine semesters of 100 percent job placement, Arias said.

Western Kentucky University and Northern Kentucky University also have construction management programs.

This semester, there are 127 students enrolled in EKU’s program. Of those, 20 are women. In 2007, there was only one: Diana Hagan, now a project manager at Messer Construction Co.

While women are still underrepresented, the increase in enrollment is remarkable, especially considering the program itself has only grown about 25 percent in that same timeframe, Arias said.

“I’ve been in construction for 25 years,” he said. “Women were very few and far between when I first started in construction. In the decade that I have been at EKU, there has been a big change. What I have noticed recently is that I have employers call me and request female students specifically. These are major companies, billion-dollar organizations that call me and their first question is: Can you send me a list of your high-performing students, and our first preference is high-performing female students. The industry has realized the benefit of having that diversity.”

Chad LaRue, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Highway Contractors, said there has always been a female presence in highway construction, but it continues to grow.

“You see it everywhere from flaggers on the field on a highway construction job to equipment operators and up to administrative and management jobs in the companies as well,” he said. “I can think of several companies off the top of my head that are owned and operated by women that are construction related.”

Blazing – and paving – trails

Messer Construction project manager Hagan, the former lone female in EKU’s program, at age 32 is president of the Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, an adjunct professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical School, and a wife and mother.

She started out studying architecture and interior design, where there were other female students, but construction is what she really loved. After an EKU associate’s degree in architecture, Hagan enrolled in construction management. Being the only woman in her classes didn’t bother her because she knew construction was the right field for her.

“I was always interested in how things worked,” she said. “When I was younger, I always loved being outside.”

Hagan was not just an average student, and not because of her gender. In 2011, she became the first EKU student to win a prestigious Association of General Contractors national scholarship.

“Diana is a great credit upon females in the industry,” Arias said. “Messer absolutely loves her. She really opened the door for future students of ours to go work there. She is a good mentor for our younger students, too.”

Also paving the way for other young women is 34-year-old Sarah Murphy Ford, vice president of Hartz Contracting in Owensboro.

Ford literally grew up in the construction business, but never dreamed she would follow in her father and mother’s footsteps. Yet that’s exactly what she did.

Her father is Mike Murphy, one of the founders of Scott, Murphy & Daniel, a large construction company in Bowling Green. Her mother is Mickeye Murphy, owner of Mick-Murf Construction, a highway construction subcontractor.

After studying marketing and finance and graduating from the University of Kentucky, Ford returned home to Bowling Green to temporarily help her father’s business.

“At that time, the business had just grown exponentially, and there were things that my dad wanted me to come home and do. We had just planned on a short period of time,” she said. “But it ended up that I just fell in love with it and appreciated it so much that I stuck with it. So I’ve been doing this now for 12 years.”

Ford’s father started her out as a laborer. Early on, she started moving around the company and “held every role possible,” she said.

“When I first got home, I immediately thought with a business degree that I’d get started in the office, but my dad had me out as a laborer for that first couple weeks and I kept moving to each position. I am so glad that I did, because now I truly know what it’s like in every field, and I have the utmost respect for every individual who works for our company,” Ford said.

Five years ago, Scott, Murphy & Daniel acquired Hartz Contracting. The owners were retiring and wanted the Bowling Green-based company to interview their employees, some of whom had spent their entire careers at Hartz, Ford said.

“Once we started interviewing, it was kind of a match made in heaven. These guys were incredible, just like our employees,” she said. “So, we just found this opportunity to keep their name and a lot of their employees.”

Hartz became a division of SMD, with Ford at the helm as its vice president. Both companies specialize in concrete construction, grading and excavation, industrial concrete, design and build, general contracting, and construction management, she said.

Fewer challenges than expected

Being a woman in construction hasn’t presented significant challenges,  according to Hagan and Ford, but Hagan occasionally met with skepticism when interviewing for jobs after college.

“I got some looks like, ‘What are you doing here?’” she said. “I will say that Messer was not like that, though.”

Connecting with the older generation of workers did require more effort, Hagan said, but her gender presented less of a challenge than the basic matter of being someone starting out in the industry. A new employee must work to gain the respect of their coworkers regardless of their gender, she said.

“It wasn’t hard for me to find some camaraderie with not only the women but the men out in the field,” Hagan said. It is imperative to be able to “communicate and handle different personalities. That’s No. 1 on the list of being a good project manager, just being able to deal with different personalities.”

The biggest challenge, Ford said, is finding a work-life balance. As a mom to two young children, it is important to not only “be a good business person, but also try to be a No. 1 mom. Children are only little for a short time.”

To help keep priorities in line, she has had to set boundaries. She turns her phone off at a certain time each night until her son and daughter are asleep, and when necessary she brings her children to the office.

Construction’s seasonal nature with occasional extra-long work days can make work-life balance extra difficult, Hagan said.

What women bring to the table

Women are really good at multitasking, Hagan said.

“That is a definite benefit in the construction industry because as a project manager, you are juggling multiple subcontractors and in and out of meetings and scheduling … you have a lot going on,” she said. “I think women are better at that in some ways than men.”

Women also can bring a fresh perspective to a construction project.

“Women see things differently,” she said. “If you have a diverse group of people, it helps your team do a good job on your construction project.”

Good communication skills are not a gender-specific trait, but Arias said some of the best managers he has ever worked with have been women who are excellent at communicating.

“The best project manager I ever had was a woman,” he said. “The reason she was the best is that her way of communication was far more effective. That’s a key strength, knowing how to negotiate and knowing how to deal with situations and not letting ego get involved.”

Becky Naugle, state director of the Kentucky Small Business Development Center, says women who have participated in KSBDC’s contractor training program  “are very good at asking for the help they need, and that is a trait that serves them well.”

Opportunities for women

While women remain underrepresented in construction, there are many programs to level the playing field, provide instruction and help women who are interested in construction careers. The national Disadvantaged Business Enterprises program helps women and minorities compete for federally funded transportation projects.

All federally funded transportation projects must meet DBE goals to “remedy ongoing discrimination and the continuing effects of past discrimination” in highway, transit, airport and highway safety contracting markets, the U.S. Department of Transportation explains on its transportation.gov website. 

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s Small Business Development Branch certifies firms that are least 51 percent owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, which includes women and other minorities. DBE certification gives disadvantaged businesses the opportunity to participate in contracts and subcontracts financed with any federal funds.

During the recently completed Ohio River Bridges Project, Kentucky established a $1.9 million program called Bridges to Opportunities (B2O) to attract women and minority construction workers. B2O helped place skilled workers in jobs, and others entering the industry get apprenticeships or get into a program or school to train them for future construction work.

B2O has trained many women to become welders, program director Gill Finley said. It has produced female laborers, flaggers and a small number of carpenters and heavy equipment operators.

On a smaller scale, the Kentucky Small Business Development Center’s contractor training program, which just wrapped up its eighth year, has helped women and minority contractors hone management skills so they can better compete in the construction industry.

Classes are small and are usually half women and half other minorities, Naugle said. The 10-week Lexington Minority and Women Contractor Training Program covers topics such as business planning, contract law, bonding, accounting and financial statements, bidding, scheduling, cost management, project cash flow analysis, safety, administration and marketing. It also helps them learn how to become subcontractors and connects them with other business owners.

The issues women construction workers and business owners encounter are not much different from those faced by their male counterparts, Naugle said.

“A lot of them (female participants) know their technical skills really well, but (in the training program) what they want to work on are those management skills. Managing cash flow, getting employees when they need them … those are universal issues across gender,” she said.


Lorie Hailey is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

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