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As Tampa Bay contractors seek skilled workers, program trains women in construction

TAMPA

Blanca Caudillo is good at math.

She's the first to raise her hand with an answer in a carpentry class at the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women in Tampa. She lights up with a smile every time she's right.

Caudillo recently separated from her husband. On a desperate quest to find a job, she found the Women Building Futures program, a free 10-week training course hosted by the center in Hillsborough County that teaches women the skills to work in construction. She is one of 40 women who make up the program's inaugural class, which began last month.

"Right after my husband left, everything started falling apart. My a/c broke, my car started breaking down," said Caudillo, who lives in Plant City. It's tough to afford these costly repairs. "I need to learn to do these things for myself."

The construction classes aren't easy, Caudillo said, but she's learning. On Tuesday night, she spent three hours building the wood frame of a wall. She had to calculate and measure the proper distances to include a window and a door. The week before, she learned how to hang dry wall.

Caudillo is considering a job in construction now. She would join a workforce that's dominated by men. In 2014, women made up just 8.9 percent of the construction industry workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But unlike other industries, the pay gap between men and women in construction is much smaller. Women in the U.S. earn on average 82.1 percent of what men make. In construction, women earn 93.4 percent of what men make, Labor Statistics data shows.

"Most of the women I know who work in construction are in ownership positions. They started out in the field working as a plumber's or contractor's helper, went to school to get their license and built their own companies," said Debra Palmer, the projects services director with Construction Moisture Consulting in Tampa. "There's great potential for women in this industry. Once you've got the skill, the trajectory for increasing your pay is quick. It can double in just a few years."

Palmer, a past president of the National Association of Women in Construction, was tapped by the leaders of the Centre for Women to help design the criteria of the class. The center received an $80,000 grant from Hillsborough County to launch the program. Its goal is to help women who are unemployed or underemployed find long-term jobs that offer pay above minimum wage.

The first class was capped at 40 participants. There's a waiting list for the next one.

"Every contractor I know is desperate for skilled laborers," Palmer said. "The demand is great and the industry is changing. There are real opportunities for women in construction."

Construction workers are still in fierce demand, even though employment numbers in the field climbed in July to their highest level since February 2009, according to data from the Associated General Contractors of America.

"The sector's job gains in the past five months have been intermittent and relatively sluggish, despite signs of accelerating demand for construction," Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist, said in a statement. "The latest Census Bureau data show the amount of construction spending is rising at the fastest rate since 2006, and there are several indicators — such as the steady increase in hiring of architects and engineers — that suggest demand for construction will remain strong, but contractors may have difficulty finding enough workers to take on all those projects."

The great demand for construction workers in Tampa Bay is what drove the center to launch this program, said Luis Rodriguez, the coordinator with Women Building Futures.

Each week, the class learns a new skill — from professional painting to plumbing to electrical basics to learning how to read construction drawings. Companies in Tampa Bay have volunteered to lead the training sessions. In the end, women receive an Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety certification, which Rodriguez said puts them a step ahead of most looking for entry-level jobs.

"These salaries are much higher than any retail job like being a Publix cashier," Rodriguez said. "They're learning a skill that can give them a new career option."

The Centre for Women, a nonprofit group that advocates for women in the workplace in Tampa Bay, received a $1.1 million grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity this year to expand its employment services specifically for "displaced homemakers," women or men over the age of 35 who lost their source of income because of a death, divorce or separation. Earlier this year, the center hosted a job far for Amazon's Ruskin distribution center that drew hundreds of people to its Hyde Park headquarters.

"There is still a stigma there, that women aren't generally accepted in construction, but that's changing more and more," Palmer said. "I see it improving every day."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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