More than a job: Construction industry could be pathway to equity in Detroit

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Job growth is expected in Michigan’s construction industry and Black women in Detroit are already taking advantage.

The National Association of Black Women in Construction’s Charter Chapter Detroit has grown to almost 40 members in the last four years. The women who comprise this group are not only working on projects that are helping shape the city but are doing so with the intention to create more jobs, extend generational wealth and increase diversity in the field.

NABWIC’s mission is to champion and empower Black women in construction and related industries, according to its website. There are 10 chapters across the country, including four in Florida and one in Michigan. Other at-large areas and major cities like Atlanta and Memphis are also represented.

Tylene Henry is the founder of the National Association of Black Women in Construction’s Charter Chapter Detroit.

Tylene Henry, founding member of the Detroit chapter, said she knew she was in the right place when she began to meet women from the national NABWIC community.  

“It’s just great to be around women that are professional, that are successful, and that care about something more than just themselves,” Henry said. “They understand that along with the opportunity comes responsibility to make sure that we lift as we climb and we provide opportunities to those that are coming along behind us and in the communities that we serve.”

Henry works with women executives and business owners in the construction industry to develop their strategy and financial planning. She said it is her personal mission to alleviate socioeconomic disparities, especially in the Black community. To do that, she advises succession planning.

“One of the greatest challenges that we have as a people, and I’ll say African-American people, is that we’re always playing catch-up when it comes to developing and establishing wealth and legacy.”

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, just 1.5 percent of the United States workforce were women in construction in 2018. At that time, 10.6 million people were working in construction with fewer than 100,000 of them being women.

Henry said she was drawn to construction because there are few barriers to enter the industry.

“You don’t have to go to school to get a $100,000 undergraduate degree to get into construction and earn a livable wage to be able to take care of your family and accumulate wealth,” she said.

Kimle Nailer of Nail-Rite Construction participated in Detroit’s Motor City Match Program and has worked on projects like Foreman Mills and Little Caesars Arena.

Kimle Nailer, owner of Nail-Rite Construction, has seen first-hand how working in construction can provide positive financial opportunities for families — including her own. Her father was a handyman and several other relatives have picked up trade skills to be able to work on projects for high wages.

“Most people may hire in at maybe [$13,000] or $27,000 a year and you get 3 percent incremental raises so you’re not earning your maximum potential until you’re much older in life,” Nailer said. “In construction within the first five years you can earn top dollar at $50 to $60 an hour and have those high wages over the lifetime of your life to build your dreams and your future.”

Nailer’s right. Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity has projected several construction-related jobs to be in high-demand and high-wage through the year 2028, according to a report released in August.

According to LEO, there is an expected 3,730 annual job openings between the $15-25 wage range for jobs that only require a high school diploma or equivalent in short-term job training. Wages only rise from there. Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters, cement masons, roofers, security and fire alarm system installers have fewer chances of growth through 2028, but wages are expected to be closer to $16 to $53 per hour with a post-secondary certificate.

Electricians, carpenters, HVAC and refrigeration, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, structural iron and steel workers are all expected to have hundreds of annual job openings with wages from $18 to $45 an hour and only require an associate’s degree with long-term training and apprenticeship experience.

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Financial managers, accountants and engineers are all expected to see thousands of job openings through 2028 with wage ranges from $26 to $75 per hour. These jobs require the most education with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

When Nailer decided to go into business for herself she participated in the Motor City Match Program to support her work in construction finishing, like framing, tiling, plumbing, heating and drywall, among other services. Nail-Rite has worked on projects like Forman Mills and Little Caesars Arena. However, Nailer says she wants to see more Black women and men working on Detroit projects—specifically, the new Amazon site on the old Michigan State Fairgrounds.

Nailer said some commercial projects have slowed and are behind schedule due to coronavirus. However, she says job opportunities are still available and sees the industry continuing to grow across southeast Michigan. As these opportunities pop up, Nailer said it’s important for workforce development and training programs to meet people where they are to ensure everyone has access to apprenticeships.  

Because the women of NABWIC say it’s not just about finding a job. They want to see more equitable opportunities as cities like Detroit continue to change.

Beverly Beard is the second generation within WT Stevens Construction, a family-owned business. She aims to hire people from within the communities in which they work.

Beverly Beard and Rhonda Grayer, sisters, are the President and Executive of WT Stevens Construction. Their business is based in Flint and they also work in Detroit. Their focus is underground utilities and demolition services which helped them become the lead contractor in Flint Water Crisis services. That work allowed WT Stevens Construction to do what they call collateral barrier-breaking. According to Beard, they partnered with workforce development programs to hire returning citizens and first-time employees while giving them on-the-job training with more seasoned employees.  

“Part of our business model is to always provide employment opportunities to the communities in which we work,” Beard said. “So we’re very proud to say that 40 percent of our workforce came from the city of Flint and we provided development and training.”

Beard and Grayer are the second generation of the business and say they are already working on the next generation.  Because they believe, as do Henry and Nailer, in the power of community and having a strong network. As they work together to bid on opportunities the women of Detroit’s NABWIC chapter say when they work together the entire community benefits.

“It’s not just about the structure when we talk about construction,” Henry said. “It’s also about building sustainable communities, people learning skills, people building businesses, people being able to build and maintain their communities and homes and learning about those processes.” 

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