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There’s a flurry of construction activity outside Luvinia Williams’ one-story home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Some workers measure and saw lumber while others drill it into place, building a ramp to the front door. The busy scene is unremarkable except for one detail: None of the people doing the work is a man.
Women account for less than 4% of workers in the construction trades, like carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the entire sector currently facing a massive labor shortage as baby-boomers retire and fewer people enter the industry, women could be an untapped resource.
Enter Nora El-Khouri Spencer, 42, a licensed general contractor and social worker. Her nonprofit, Hope Renovations, offers a free 10-week program that provides women with the skills and certifications they need to find well-paying jobs in the construction trades. The average hourly wages in the construction industry are often nearly double that of restaurants and hospitality work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“My vision is that one day we (won’t) think it’s unusual for women to be working in this industry,” Spencer said. “That women (will be) doing this work, making these good wages, and creating better lives for themselves.”
But that’s only one part of Spencer’s mission. Trainees also get hands-on experience by working alongside her group’s professional construction team – all women and non-binary individuals – making safety modifications to senior citizens’ homes.
“Our program is actually solving two problems at once,” she said. “We’re bringing women into this industry and we’re also helping older adults age in place. … It’s a win-win.”
Spencer didn’t develop her skills until later in life. Growing up, if her parents needed something fixed, she says, they’d ask her brother. But buying her first house with her husband – and the prospect of expensive home renovations – changed that.
“I realized pretty quickly that my tastes were outside of my budget,” she said. “So, I just started buying tools and trying to learn things on my own. And I figured out pretty quick that I was good at it.”
Over the years, she kept learning more from family members and YouTube. When she’d hire contractors for more complicated projects, she’d get them to teach her as well.
“I would sort of follow them around and ask them a lot of questions,” she said. “And then, it hit me that I’d never met another woman … and I began to wonder about why that was.”
The question stuck with Spencer when, in her mid-30s, she left a successful career in human resources to get a master’s degree in social work. While working in a homeless shelter, helping women get back on their feet, she would often suggest construction jobs, which pay much more than minimum wage.
“Their reaction was always… ‘No one’s ever taught me any of that stuff. It’s a man’s job,’” she said. “I realized there’s an opportunity gap. That’s a gap I can help fill.”
The first few weeks of Spencer’s training program are spent in the classroom, where trainees learn safety, blueprint reading and construction math. And then the work gets more hands-on, as they’re taught the basics of carpentry, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, masonry and more. Students get their own stocked toolbox that they take with them when they graduate.
“We have folks from all walks of life that come to us… single moms, women in recovery, women who are just re-careering,” she said. “All kinds of different people coming together and finding a shared excitement.”
While the program is free to everyone, Spencer also offers a stipend to women who are below a certain income level to help with transportation and childcare.
“If we really want to get women into this industry, we need to take out all the barriers that we can,” she said. “We want to make it as easy for them as possible.”
Her approach seems to be working. Since July 2020, more than 40 women and non-binary individuals have completed the program. Two-thirds of those graduates have found jobs in the industry, Spencer says.
Raine Clay, 46, is one of them. A single mom of three, she’d worked for a shipping company for almost two decades until a back injury forced her to find a new direction. Hope Renovations gave her the chance to pursue interests she’d had for years.
“Junior high was the first time I was introduced to – it was woodshop, then. I liked it, but I didn’t see any girls doing it,” she said. “Then, when I was around 30… I started trying to take carpentry classes, but it never worked out.”
Clay graduated at the end of March and is now a project manager at a construction company. Eventually, she hopes to become an interior designer.
“I feel empowered to be able to pursue my dreams, and to show my kids a great example,” she said. “It’s been a long time, but it’s been well worth the wait.”
And women like Clay aren’t the only ones who benefit from Spencer’s work.
Luvinia Williams, 81, has lived at her Chapel Hill home since 1975. But in recent years, as she’s started using a cane, she found it difficult to navigate the steps outside of her home.
“It was very hard trying to get in and out because I didn’t have anything to hold on to,” she said. “I’ve almost slipped several times trying to get in.”
One of her sons uses a walker, making accessibility even more of an issue. She was thrilled when Hope Renovations offered to build her a ramp with handrails – and says she was astounded to see the team in action.
“I never witnessed to all women building,” she said. “Everybody is organized. Everybody got a nail, they got a hammer, they got a piece of board. … No men!”
That’s one of Spencer’s goals.
“If we don’t see women out there doing this, other women – they’ll never see this as an opportunity,” she said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
The work fills a real need for her community’s senior citizens. In graduate school, Spencer learned that if people can stay in their homes as they age, it’s cheaper than moving them into assisted living facilities, and often better for them socially and emotionally. Yet many older adults can’t access or afford to make safety modifications, like installing bathroom grab bars, converting tubs to showers and widening doorways for wheelchair accessibility.
“These jobs are typically smaller to mid-size jobs, and a lot of contractors don’t want to take the time to do that work,” she said. “That’s how the full idea of Hope Renovations came to be.”
So far, the organization’s full-time construction team, assisted by program trainees, has completed more than 130 projects, most of them for seniors. Their work is done on a sliding scale – those who can afford to, pay market rate, which then enables the team to do many projects at reduced or no cost.
Launching her nonprofit in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging, but Spencer says she’s incredibly proud of what her group has achieved.
“We’re providing hope to the people that we serve,” she said. “We’re helping them renovate their lives.”
Want to get involved? Check out the Hope Renovations website and see how to help.
To donate to Hope Renovations via GoFundMe, click here