Space is cleared by construction crews in summer 2023 at milepost 21 in preparation for the culvert being placed. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

Construction jobs in Alaska hit an eight-year peak in 2023 and the growing need for those workers in 2024, in a tight labor market, could be met by recruitment of more women, according to an article in the June issue of Alaska Economic Trends. 

With federal infrastructure projects set to wrap up around 2031 and the Willow and Pikka oilfield projects set to produce before 2030, demand for workers will be high and Alaska will be competing with other states for labor on similar infrastructure projects said Karinne Wiebold, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. 

Construction jobs rose by 17,100 in 2023, up by 1,000 positions from 2022, and state labor officials are forecasting the need for an additional 1,100 workers in 2024. The construction spending forecast for 2023 was $5.55 billion, compared to the 2024 spending forecast of $6.36 billion.  

The growing need for construction workers, amid an already tight labor market, is driven by 

changing demographics of an older population nationwide and fewer people of prime working ages. One possible way to broaden the worker pool would be recruitment of women, who are vastly underrepresented in the Alaska construction industry, Wiebold said. Women currently represent 14% of Alaska’s construction workers, and most of them work in offices. 

The industry would benefit by making construction more attractive to women, who bring a range of complementary qualities to the work site, according to the article. These qualities include being team-oriented, being cautious with materials and machinery, and taking advantage of modern tools such as hydraulic lifts and cranes. 

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In most major Alaska industries, men and women work in fairly equal numbers, but the construction industry in Alaska has long been primarily the realm of men. Changes needed to attract more women include personal protective gear specific to women’s needs and proportions, rather than just smaller and more feminine-looking versions of gear made for men, plus secure and designated bathrooms and an inclusive and safe culture, Wiebold said. 

Remedies are also needed to make the formal complaint processes and whistleblower protections effective for women. While short seasons, tight timelines and long commutes are often part of the job, increased flexibility when possible makes such jobs more accessible to women, who often also have caretaking responsibilities within their families. Women in construction have reported feeling uncomfortable bringing such issues to management’s attention because they are indirectly or directly punished for doing so. Wiebold said some remedies besides training include formal complaint processes and whistleblower protections. 

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, noted that historically labor unions and their apprenticeship systems have been accused of being a club that was not easy to get into for outsiders. “In the 1980s and 1990s we took steps to address this issue,” Hall said. “In the 1990s we helped establish Alaska Works Partnership.”   

The non-profit is the home of several programs that seek to increase interest and participation in union apprenticeship programs for women, veterans and people of color. 

“Our goal is to give women the opportunity to gain experience in the trades by participating in hands on trainings, exploring different trades, provide support services for things like child care during training, tools and work gear (if we have enough funding), interview skills, etc.,” said Alexis Cowell, executive director of Alaska Works Partnership. “We also provide quite a bit of outreach in an effort to make sure women and young girls know these high paying careers are available to them. We are in the eleventh month of our fiscal year and have received 3,139 applications/registrations for the training opportunities that AWP and our partners hold. Of these, 40% (1,254) are from women, pretty amazing.” 

 Cowell said there are many challenges for women in the trades, but getting into apprenticeship is not one of them if the partnership can get then to the point of applying.  

“The struggles for some, come once they are on the job. Child care is a huge problem that money can’t fix. In urban Alaska all the child care facilities large and small have waiting lists. Many jobs are out of town regardless of what town you are in. This is especially difficult for all Rural Alaskan’s who would spend most of their apprenticeship away from home,” she said.  

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