The history of construction—to the best of anyone’s knowledge—goes back to the Stone Age, when stones essentially served as proto-hammers. Hard stones were used to break softer stones, blacksmithing surfaced, metal nails appeared, and stuff got built. Roughly two million years later, the hammer handle was invented, followed by forging, ironwork, and the Industrial Revolution, thus giving birth to construction as we know it—which has largely remained a male-dominated industry.
While construction still evokes images of sweaty men in hard hats, the notion that the industry is—and will always be—a boys’ club is fading fast. A significant disparity in the ratio of men to women in construction persists, but a big shift is underway.
Making a Difference at Miron Construction
Founded in 1918 and coming up on its 100th anniversary, Wisconsin-based Miron Construction is at the forefront of this sea change. By encouraging a younger generation of workers, specifically women, to get involved in construction, Miron is helping to bridge the industry’s skilled and technical labor shortage—and is committing to tech innovations that will help ensure its diverse future.
When Miron first recognized that it had exhausted its typical recruiting efforts, it wanted to do something that would draw more women into the field. Currently, approximately 9 percent of construction jobs are held by women, the majority of which are office positions. (Women hold only 1.2 percent of construction trade jobs.) To address this gap, Miron launched an annual outreach event called Build Like a Girl to show middle- and high-school girls that construction is not just for boys.
Build Like a Girl encourages young women to roll up their sleeves and experience what construction and the trades are all about, through hands-on projects at temporary jobsites. Additionally, Miron partnered with Miller Electric and the Talent Collaborative of the Fox Cities in fall 2017 to host Smart Girls Rock!—an event that introduces female high-school students to STEM-related careers. Considering the construction industry’s shift from analog to digital, the partners saw it as an opportune time to expose young women to construction as a STEM-based career choice.
The Build Like a Girl Backstory
According to Tonya Dittman, LEED green associate at Miron, the company was interested in hiring more diverse recruits. Miron wanted to invite the other half of the population—women—to get involved in construction.
“Jen Bauer [director of marketing at Miron] and our vice president of field operations loved the idea of creating an event that actually had some hands-on activities,” Dittman says. “Build Like a Girl was all about how to educate and grow excitement in young girls about joining construction and the trades. Smart Girls Rock! was about educating and sharing knowledge and encouraging girls to join broader STEM-related careers—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
Both events had a big impact on on the participating girls who gained new perspective on what being a woman in construction means. “During Smart Girls Rock! the girls were really getting into it,” Dittman says. “Melissa Schulteis, a virtual construction specialist with Miron, showcased her tech-related career in the construction industry, a position that didn’t exist 10 years ago. By the end of the day, the girls were collaborating with one another and saying things like, ‘I never thought I’d really like welding.’ They were walking away saying, ‘I want to go learn more about this.’ It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, this was fun,’ but, ‘I actually want to go try this once I leave today.’”
Tech Innovation Fosters Diversity—and Profitability
New technology is certainly a carrot to attract younger generations—regardless of gender—into construction. At Miron, it also benefits the bottom line. To streamline the construction process and help alleviate problems such as cost overruns and equipment malfunctions due to miscalculated installations, the company developed a methodology called Virtual Process Integration, or VPI.
VPI combines 3D virtual building, systems, equipment models, laser scanning, and laser-alignment technologies. Through VPI, the entire construction team—from subcontractors to engineers and business owners—can collaborate on one project in real time. This gives businesses a big-picture snapshot of the nuts and bolts of their projects, and it all happens before breaking ground. As a result, Miron can prevent downtime and lost revenue for its clients.
VPI proves invaluable for clients with massive, complex machines, such as those in the pulp-and-paper industry. Those machines need to be built and integrated quickly and efficiently to prevent a production slowdown. For example, one client’s factory produces 1,800 units per minute, which means minimizing downtime for replacing machinery is crucial. For another client, Miron spent around eight months to prepare for a six-day installation. The preparation paid off; the company had saleable product within a few hours of project completion.
Pulling that off requires the kind of innovative technology that is so attractive to younger-generation workers. For its industrial and manufacturing clients, Miron uses reality capture to create point clouds from laser scans, which helps generate more precise calculations while speeding up the process. “We could be dealing with 20 to 100 million dollars in equipment, and then you have the building that goes around it,” says Dan Bayer, Miron’s director of virtual construction. “So it’s a process and an understanding of the placement and accuracy—defining the baseline to make sure all of the equipment is placed in the right locations.”
That means everything has to be installed perfectly and on time. “If you miss that deadline because things don’t fit right or installers aren’t going in the right order, the cost of our work is minimal compared to that equipment not producing product,” Dittmann says.
New Collaboration Models for New Generations of Women in Construction
Another big and tech-flashy draw for the incoming workforce of young women and men is Miron’s Construction Innovation (Ci) Lab. The Ci Lab is an interactive workspace that allows anyone on a construction project team to collaborate on various platforms using a giant, wall-mounted, iPad-type screen.
“Our environment is a place for us to educate owners on how buildings are built,” Bayer says. “The unique thing about the space is that you’re able to put a lot of information up on the screen, interact with it, and make decisions faster. In the past, you might have a 2D floorplan of a building, and then you might switch over to a 3D view of the model. But with this space, we’re able to put all of this information up on the screen at one time.”
For a large-scale build project to run successfully, the design firm, contractors, and trade contractors need a way to collaborate efficiently. The Ci Lab brings these parties—which could range from the incoming Gen Zs to the soon-retiring Baby Boomers—together to interact using the model, yielding more effective decisions. “The screen is 32-touch; literally 32 finger tips can interact on it at any given time,” Dittman says. “It allows people to interact, multiple people at the same time in collaboration.”
Breaking Job Stereotypes About Being a Woman in Construction
Construction is rapidly evolving through technology: It’s an industry that’s become a lot more than nuts, bolts, hammers, and scaffolding. By bringing awareness of the industry’s diverse opportunities to girls through community involvement and education, Miron Construction is doing its part to show young women that they, too, can be a part of something innovative and rewarding. They can work in virtual construction and apply the VPI process in an office setting, or they can roll up their sleeves and get dirty on jobsites (while reviewing 3D models on mobile devices in the field).
The possibilities within the industry have become virtually limitless for women in construction. Sure, you can still put on a hard hat and dig up dirt, but there’s a new fourth dimension that’s just waiting to be explored by the construction industry’s next generation of young professionals.