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 Ms. 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 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 for women and stereotypes that construction work doesn’t suit them.
Another factor, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center, is pervasive denigration and sexual harassment 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 women taking its programs, including transit fares to and from the offices in Manhattan. Students must have high school or GED diplomas and be able to carry 50-pound loads.
On a recent class day, Ms. 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. 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,” Mr. Prohaska said. “To survive, they have to toe the line... As long as they’re real workers, nobody minds having them.”
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.”
Mr. 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.”