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Wisconsin companies join national effort to get more women in the construction industry

Miron Contruction's Build Like a Girl event gives northeast Wisconsin students hands-on learning experience

Miron Construction Build Like a Girl event
Miron Construction intern Jenna Johanknecht, left, teaches a student about virtual construction at the company’s Build Like a Girl event on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Johanknecht attend the event as a student in 2017 and 2018. (Joe Schulz/WPR)

About seven years ago, Jenna Johanknecht thought construction was interesting but just couldn’t picture herself working in the industry.

That’s when her father signed her and her sister up for Neenah-based Miron Construction Co.’s annual Build Like a Girl event. One of the topics Johanknecht learned about was virtual construction, a method of using software to design digital models of buildings and project sites.

She met the company’s virtual construction lead, Melissa Schulteis, who showed her the digital models that she worked with. The demonstration was a light bulb moment for Johanknecht who realized, “This might be something I want to do.” 

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When she went to college, Johanknecht decided to study interior architecture. On Thursday, her career path came full circle. Johanknecht, now a virtual construction intern at Miron, helped educate students at this year’s Build Like a Girl event.

“I just find this so exhilarating,” she said. “I was one of these girls at one point, and now I’m teaching them what I know.”

A pair of northeast Wisconsin students go up in a boom lift, each accompanied by a Miron Construction employee. It was part of the company’s Build Like a Girl event on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Joe Schulz/WPR

This year’s event came amid a push, in Wisconsin and nationally, to get more women interested in careers in the construction industry. 

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo joined Gov. Tony Evers in Milwaukee for a roundtable on women in the trades. The commerce secretary also announced that two northeast Wisconsin companies, Miron Construction and The Boldt Group, signed onto the Million Women in Construction Community Pledge to bring more women into the construction workforce.

“I am thrilled to be expanding our Million Women in Construction Community Pledge with Boldt and Miron’s commitment to support proven strategies that will help women and underserved communities in Wisconsin get access to good-paying, quality jobs in construction and the trades,” Raimondo said in a statement.

Nationally, women made up roughly 10.9 percent of the construction industry’s workforce in 2022, despite making up about half of the population, according to Labor Finders, a Florida-based employment agency. 

That disparity was worse in Wisconsin, where only 7.6 percent of construction employees were women in 2022, according to the employment agency.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the industry had 338,000 open jobs in April, the most recent data available. In February, the industry had 456,000 open positions amid a national construction boom.

Dave Walsh, executive vice president of human resources at Miron, said talent recruitment continues to be a challenge for positions both at job sites and in the office.

A student uses a drill at a carpentry station during Miron Construction’s annual Build Like a Girl event in Menasha on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Joe Schulz/WPR

“Our workforce is aging out, so we need a new young workforce — there aren’t robots to put up masonry walls yet,” Walsh said. “We need people to do that, and, for us, I think we’re missing half the population if we’re not enlisting women to help.”

That’s why Miron has been hosting the Build Like a Girl event for eight years. It highlights opportunities in the industry for women.

The free event lets seventh to 10th grade girls have conversations with women in the industry, and participate in hands-on demonstrations to practice carpentry or masonry skills, use a crane and take a ride in a boom lift.

A student operates a crane at Miron Construction's annual Build Like a Girl event.
A student operates a crane at Miron Construction’s annual Build Like a Girl event on Thursday, June 27, 2024. The event aimed to show girls opportunities in the industry. Joe Schulz/WPR

Eighth grader Brooklyn Bruss attended the event with her sister. She said it was inspiring to meet and learn from women working in the industry.

“They know what they’re doing really, really well, so it’s kind of fun learning from them,” she said.

Seventh grader Jacquelyn Kempen also attended the event. She said she’s still trying to choose between teaching and working in construction. Kempen said she’s been interested in construction since she was a little kid, playing with Legos with her brother and her best friend.

While she’s still making up her mind on a career path, Kempen said construction being a male-dominated field doesn’t deter her.

“A lot of people just see the field and construction as a boy’s job,” she said. “I think it’d be really cool if more girls started doing it, because then it’d be known as (a job for) everybody.”

A student scoops wet cement at the masonry station during Miron Construction’s annual Build Like a Girl event on Thursday, June 27, 2024. Joe Schulz/WPR

Walsh with Miron Construction said the event has led to a few success stories, like Johanknecht’s internship, where some of the students come to work for the company when they get older. But he said recruitment isn’t necessarily the goal of Build Like a Girl.

“What it is, for me, though, is an opportunity really to spread the word to our girls,” he said. “If they end up at Miron, great. If they end up somewhere else in the industry, we all win.”

He also said Miron signed onto the Million Women in Construction Community Pledge to add an “accountability piece” to their outreach efforts.

“We’re saying, not just to ourselves, ‘Hey, we should get more women.’ We’re saying to the world that we’re committed to it,” he said.