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Female masons pave way for construction careers at World of Concrete

As Liz Nichols and several other masons spent Tuesday morning smoothing over a concrete demonstration slab outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, her 4-month-old daughter Rowan slept peacefully in her stroller behind the line of working women.

It wasn’t a unique experience for Nichols’ baby. In fact, she has been around job sites since she was in utero. Nichols worked until she was eight months pregnant. She said she stopped only because of the heat wave in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, last summer — a testament to the commitment many female cement masons have for their trade.

“I feel like there’s a grit and perseverance to women that really translates to how hard pouring concrete is,” said Nichols, a former contestant on the CBS reality competition show “Tough as Nails.” “You have to be flexible — you’re not the boss; the concrete is the boss.”

Nichols was one of several female cement masons in Las Vegas last week to display their career talents during the World of Concrete trade show.

At a trade show booth for the Steel Edge Women of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association, Nichols and several other masons encouraged others to join their profession.

“One of our goals would definitely be to try and make the job sites and construction crews look a little bit more like the communities that they’re building and working in,” said Kilah Engelke, who chairs the Steel Edge Women of the OPCMIA. “It’s one of the more physical of the trades as far as construction is concerned. We definitely have a lot of pride in that we can hang and be useful, be integral parts of the crews that we work on.”

Only 3.9 percent of the construction workforce is female, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union wants to encourage it as an option for people seeking a collaborative and challenging job with family-supporting wages and benefits.

Working with concrete — and in construction, generally — can take many different forms. Rebecca Fuscardo, a concrete finisher and artisan from West Virginia, began working with concrete nearly 20 years ago after using other mediums for art for much of her career. But she was drawn to the expanded abilities of concrete, which could be poured one day and be painted or stained the next.

“Women care, and they’re great project managers,” she said while demonstrating artisan uses for concrete with a carved water feature of a gnome. “We want to do what a man can do, and I’m not saying this to knock women, but I wish there was more out there.”

It wasn’t only the concrete masons who promoted the industry to other women. Inside World of Concrete on Tuesday, a two-hour seminar and open forum on women in construction brought together engineers, project managers and others to discuss their experiences — both positive and negative.

Leslie Shiner, a panelist who works in construction financial management consulting, said she often had to prove her own expertise in the field.

“When I first started, I would get a lot of ‘Oh, is your husband a contractor? Your father?’ ” Shiner said during the panel discussion.

Reframing the idea of construction work may encourage more women to join.

“I love that at the end of every day there’s a finished product,” Nichols said.” Every single day you walk away from a job site, there’s something new that didn’t exist like that. The immediate satisfaction and fast pace, it’s exciting.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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