Woman creates construction jobs to fight gender gap


BY KAYLA GUO, The News & Observer

CARRBORO, N.C. (AP) — Nora El-Khouri Spencer sometimes tells people she started her nonprofit Hope Renovations because she got mad.

She had taken up home building and renovation as a hobby while working in a business at Lowe’s and after an expensive contractor job went wrong at her first home with her husband. Spencer bought a few power tools with her employee discount and took to YouTube to learn how to do her own home renovations.

As she and her husband bought and renovated more and more homes over time, she followed the contractors and asked them to teach her what they were doing.

But then she realized: After years in home renovations, she had never met another woman in the business. All of the general contractors she worked with, many of whom earned six-figure salaries, were men.

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“I got angry that I never saw women do it, and also that it was never presented to me as an opportunity,” Spencer told The News & Observer. “Why wasn’t it something I knew about?” And I think that made me realize the change that I could be a part of helping.

And although the pandemic has caused both a boom in the construction industry and a severe labor shortage, the gender gap within the sector has still persisted. Women make up less than 4% of workers in construction trades, such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, the construction industry offers average hourly wages that are often nearly double those in restaurants and hotels.

“We always say, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ And we don’t see ourselves in this industry and the men in this industry don’t see the women doing it,” Spencer said. But “people realized there was a whole genre missing. It doesn’t make sense anymore — there are many women looking for a job.

So, in June 2020, Spencer launched Hope Renovations.

“Our mission is to change the gender composition of this industry and ensure that people who are unrepresented (can) have these great career opportunities,” said Spencer, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hope Renovations, a Carrboro-based nonprofit, offers a free 12-week job training program for women and non-binary people to learn the construction and job skills they need to land a good job. paid or an apprenticeship in construction or to continue their training. .

The program teaches basic construction skills, such as blueprint reading, construction math, safety, and basic carpentry, while training participants in networking, resume and cover letter writing, communication skills, conflict resolution, etc. Trainees can then move on to Construction 101, which gives a taste of all the major construction trades, from carpentry and electrical to plumbing and roofing.

While the program is free to all interns, the nonprofit organization also offers case management services to connect participants to resources ranging from childcare to transportation and housing. This support is key to what Hope Renovations offers.

“It’s one thing to give them the skills, but to really create that confidence that they can go out there and do that and then have the support to be successful – that was really what we wanted to bring together,” Spencer said. .

Spencer and the program have received accolades and national recognition. In May, CNN named Spencer one of the network’s CNN Heroes, a regular feature that honors “ordinary people who do extraordinary things to change the world.”

Hope Renovations goes beyond helping participants embark on a new path.

They can also practice what they learn on-site alongside Hope Renovation’s professional construction team, which is made up entirely of women and non-binary people. The team focuses on small to medium-sized home repairs – projects that typical construction companies might pass up to work on larger projects.

That’s the other side of the organization’s mission: to enable seniors and adults with disabilities to “stay comfortably and safely in their homes as they grow older,” a concept Spencer learned during the obtaining his master’s degree in social work. These services are offered at a decreasing rate.

Since the nonprofit launched in June 2020, 50 people have graduated from the program, according to Spencer. A majority have since found employment in the industry.

Going forward, Hope Renovation plans to pilot an all-Spanish-speaking cohort and plans to potentially offer childcare options for interns and expand its night class offerings. Spencer hopes to expand Hope Renovations to provide services throughout the Triangle and eventually the country.

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