With Diane Benck taking the helm of Associated Equipment Distributors (AED), it’s clear the male-dominated construction equipment industry is finally turning a corner – albeit slowly and more out of necessity than anything else.
“I think (the industry’s) been known as a good ol’ boys club and it has worked for a long time,” said Betsy Wagner of Wagner Equipment in Colorado. “But as young people are moving away from hardworking blue-collar jobs, we as a whole and as an industry are having to look in places we’ve never looked before to find qualified workers.”
The construction industry in general is still made up mostly of men. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2016 that of the 6.9 million workers in the industry, only 9.1 percent were women. Among the 203,000 skilled technicians working on heavy vehicles and mobile equipment that same year, only 0.5 percent were women, according to the BLS.
Nevertheless, as individuals in the industry attend AED-sponsored events, they are seeing more female faces in the crowd.
“It’s been a welcome change. I remember when I first started going to AED events, I’d typically be the only female in the entire audience of more than 100 people,” said Karen Zajick of Norris Sales Co. Inc. in Pennsylvania. “I’m starting to see that the number of women attendees are increasing because of recent advancements in the construction equipment distribution industry. However, they certainly are not anywhere near equal. It’s like moving mountains.”
Yet most women in the industry still hold positions traditionally held by females.
“When it is a family-owned business, you may see more women in management positions, but there are still many traditional female roles in this industry,” Benck said. “When you get down to salespeople, individuals out in the field and technicians, female workers are still few and far between.”
That could change drastically in the coming years, with baby boomers hitting their retirement years and fewer millennials wanting to work in blue-collar jobs.
A 2016 AED Foundation report found that the industry is losing at least $2.4 billion in opportunities because of the lack of skilled technicians, which is part of the impetus that may drive a push for more women in the field.
“Excluding over 50 percent of our population due to their gender just doesn’t make sense,” Wagner said. “We need more of the population to select from. Of course, we want diversity – both racial and gender – but for us it’s that we need more people.”
“There is a new generation coming into the workforce and they want diversity,” Benck said. “They want equal opportunity no matter what your sex or race is. It is important that our industry recognizes this and implements the proper changes.”
Wagner agrees with Benck’s assessment and said the younger generation of workers sees diversity as a benefit.
“Industry-specific studies have been conducted that show companies with highly diverse boards and upper management produce a higher profit. I think as these numbers come out, we’re really going to see a change in future generations: up-and-coming leadership, people who are going to be able to look past how someone looks and instead ask how to make money.”
In the meantime, the equipment distribution industry still has to deal with its lingering good ol’ boy reputation.
“It’s a culture, and right now you have to be a tough woman to succeed in this industry,” Wagner said. “Companies that aren’t willingly to make these necessary changes may face uncertain difficulties in years to come.”