A Woman’s Construction Career Story
When Melanie Sharp was a teenager, she knew she wanted to work in construction. Having grown up in a family of electricians and plumbers, she knew the industry was for her. So, she applied herself and worked hard to earn a scholarship, setting her heart on becoming a construction engineer. She was ready to leap into the industry until circumstances steered her in a different direction.
“I became a single mom, and needed means of support,” Sharp says. “I refused to live on welfare, but I also chose an industry that is not woman-friendly. I ended up losing my scholarship and became an electrician helper, breaking into the industry, hoping to fulfill my dream a different way. But ninety-nine percent of the time, I was the only woman on the job.”
After earning several certifications, Sharp went on to be a journeyman electrician for fourteen years. She was often perceived as a helper, timekeeper, or in-office staff, not the qualified electrician she had worked hard to become.
“Being the only woman on the jobsite had its difficulties,” says Sharp. “Most of the men onsite were older gentlemen who had a mindset that I didn’t belong. I made it my mission to prove them wrong.”
The construction industry has historically been described as a non-traditional occupation for women. A woman’s primary duty was to care for her family, leaving it up to her father or husband to be the provider. Despite this perception, women were known to have worked as laborers carrying water, and digging ditches for foundation walls, thatching roofs, and mixing mortar in Europe during the 17th Century. They were either single with no other means of support or sometimes married but just poor women trying to survive. Women were paid half the rate as male workers and were not even documented as part of the crew.
One of the first documented women in construction was in the late 1800s. But it wasn’t until 1979 that a woman was placed in charge of the construction of Trump Tower, making her the first female to ever oversee an American skyscraper from start to finish.1
“Sometimes, journeymen wouldn’t accept me,” Sharp says. “I was often overlooked and pushed aside by men who didn’t take me seriously or assumed that I was there for clerical work. I had a daunting task to show my full potential, and not worry what anyone else thought of me.”
But in 2008, Melanie Sharp was laid off. Not knowing where she could go next, but still determined to support herself and her family, Sharp obtained her commercial driving license and started driving cement trunks, school buses, and dump trucks. That’s how she started working for civil construction contractor, Craig & Heidt, Inc., where she and her husband Richard have worked for over five years. Sharp started as a dump truck driver, and after two years on the job, transitioned to the safety field.
“I proved that I could do the job, and do it well,” says Sharp. “I became a safety coordinator who learned through field experience, not through a traditional education.”
Sharp is grateful that she has always had a job and hasn’t had to live paycheck-to-paycheck, thanks to the construction industry.
“Women should consider a career in construction,” Sharp says. “There is great earning potential, and there are plenty of opportunities to grow and learn. Nowadays, there are programs such as the NCCER Certification program offered through ABC Greater Houston’s educational affiliate, Construction and Maintenance Education Foundation (CMEF). There are even companies that are willing to sponsor women to start as helpers. All you need to do is have the determination to achieve your goals.”
But where would a young woman start if she doesn’t have resources? Sharp recommends not focusing on a single career.
“I’ve noticed a lot of ladies will focus on one career choice like a welder or pipefitter,” continues Sharp. “I recommend keeping your possibilities open. There are so many opportunities out there, so don’t hold back with only one option. Look into engineering or equipment operating. Both are needed in this industry and have great earning potential. There are opportunities straight out of high school that offer a decent living. College is not always required to pursue a dream.”
Women continue to become more independent and seek equal opportunity for great wages, benefits, and pensions, increasing the numbers in the construction industry of women. Women need to mentor the younger generation so they will see the incredible career paths they can pursue and realize they can be anything they want to be – whether a business executive or a craft professional.
And what about Sharp? She plans to go back to college to earn her bachelor’s degree in safety. Not because she needs it, but because she wants to better herself. She even wants to start mentoring the men and women of younger generations. With Sharp’s clear determination, it’s not surprising that she will continue to be a successful force in the construction industry.
- McEvoy, Annie. New England Real Estate Journal. The History of Women in the Construction Industry, and How Far They Have Come. February 17, 2017. https://nerej.com/the-history-of-women-in-the-construction-industry-and-how-far-they-have-come-by-annie-mcevoy