When it comes to renovations on her own homes, Nora El-Khouri Spencer has done it all—framing walls, rewiring an entire house and completely updating a kitchen and master bathroom, including the plumbing. Along the way, she’s endured skepticism from contractors that she, a woman, could do the work. One had trouble even addressing her, looking at her 23-year-old stepson instead.
Construction has always been considered a man’s job, and that translates into the numbers on jobsites. Women make up less than 10% of the construction industry, according to the National Association of Women in Construction. But the industry is grappling with a deep labor shortage. Associated Builders and Contractors estimated in March 2021 that the sector needs to hire another 430,000 craft professionals to keep up with demand for the remainder of the year.
Spencer has a solution: train and hire more women herself.
In 2020, Spencer launched Hope Renovations, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that provides both training for underemployed women and renovations and repairs for older adults and people with disabilities. Already, graduates from the program have landed jobs with builders and remodelers. Some have even started their own business.
“If we’re going to be able to keep up with the growing demand, we’ve got to get more people in this industry,” Spencer said. “A lot of effort over the years has focused on kids and getting to kids earlier and in high school. That is all well and good. But we’re forgetting about adult women—an entire gender and segment of the population that is just not in this industry.”
‘Doing the unexpected’
A combination of life experiences led Spencer to the trades. While working in campus recruiting for hardware retailer Lowe’s, she took advantage of the employee discount and taught herself how to use different tools by watching YouTube.
Her interest only grew when she and her husband became homeowners. As she watched contractors complete repairs, Spencer wondered why she was paying people to do something she could do. “I have always gotten a charge out of doing the unexpected … doing it really well and having this final product that was as close to perfect as you could get,” she said. “It was that personal charge that was really what kept me coming back for more.”
Later, while working for IBM in recruitment, Spencer tired of the corporate grind and went back to school, graduating with a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2017. As part of the program, she worked with women in a homeless shelter.
“I would always bring up the trades as a potential job opportunity to the women and there was just this block,” she said. One woman had worked on a farm her entire life and clearly had the stamina, strength and know-how to work on a jobsite. She agreed she’d do well in construction, Spencer remembered, but then replied: “That’s a man’s job.”
“There was this cultural block because women have never had a seat at the table,” she said. “And it was keeping these women from potentially having a career where they could support themselves and their families and really raise themselves out of poverty.”
Spencer long wondered how she could pair her interest in construction and social work. The idea for Hope Renovations formed during a social entrepreneurship class in her graduate program. “What I wanted didn’t exist, so I had to make it,” she said.
To get Hope Renovations started, federal funding from a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant was instrumental. Partnerships with companies such as Lowe’s and local and regional businesses continue to support it.
Hope Renovations’ approach is two-pronged. The free, 10-week training program focuses on the basics of most trades. Students graduate with a Home Builders Institute Pre-Apprenticeship certificate, along with certifications in OSHA 10, CPR and first aid. Qualified students must identify as a woman and be over the age of 18. Referrals come in from local agencies, nonprofits and word of mouth.
Social workers on staff also offer help with other essential needs, including connecting them with childcare or transportation, teaching them how to interview and providing them with soft skills training. “We really try to use it as a career development program instead of just a hard skills program,” Spencer said.
The other half of Hope Renovations is its aging-in-place program for older adults and people with disabilities. An all-woman crew completes home repairs and renovations on a sliding scale. Some pay market rate. Others qualify for reduced prices and free services. “We’re booked out just like everybody else,” Spencer said.
For Gabriella Farfan and Yesenia Hernandez, Hope Renovations has made all the difference. Let go from her office job because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Farfan was unemployed when she found the training program. “It’s given me a path that I didn’t think was open to me,” said Farfan, who now is working as an apprentice for Hope.
Despite attending a community college’s electrical program for a few semesters, Hernandez was having a hard time landing an apprenticeship or job until she completed Hope’s training program. She recently started a four-year electrical apprenticeship.
“Hope Renovations changed my life,” Hernandez said.
The future is bright for Hope. Spencer has plans to double the size of its construction crew this year. Within five years, she hopes to have grown the program beyond North Carolina.
To employers in the construction industry, Spencer has this advice: hire women and create policies to retain them. Don’t tolerate sexist behavior and be thoughtful about their needs, such as ensuring there’s a clean restroom. Once you bring on one woman, it will be easier to recruit more.
“Diversity begets diversity,” Spencer said. “If you make a point of bringing one or two of what you want to bring into your organization, it will organically start to happen.”