Union electricians Michelle Abell, left, and Nicole Perez of IBEW Local 401 in Reno-Sparks pose for an image that’s been used on billboards across Reno-Sparks and other marketing materials to promote the Women Build Nevada organization and the importance of increasing female roles within the construction industry.

Photo: Sabrina Moberly


Back in 2005, Randi Reed was working on the business development side for a subcontractor in Las Vegas.

It was her first job in the construction industry, and she was thriving — so much so that over a two-year period, Reed racked up a substantial amount in commissions.


This was a problem for her boss, a man.


“I brought my commission sheet into my boss,” Reed recalled during a recent interview with the NNBW. “And he looked at it and said, ‘Wow, if I end up paying you this, you’re going to make more than the men in the company, and that just can’t happen on my watch.’”


Pausing, Reed added: “I ended up getting fired three days later.”


It would be 18 months before Reed saw the commission money she had earned — and she had to win a lawsuit to get it.


“I was only 25, and it was the worst to deal with that discrimination,” Reed said.


Yet, Reed didn’t let that discourage her from continuing a career in a male-dominated industry she was passionate about.


“I love the creativity,” Reed said. “It’s almost like an orchestra — when you can go from a raw piece of dirt to a conceptual image or conceptual design, and then really bring it to life. And then you drive by and go, ‘wow, I had something to do with that.’”


It’s something Reed has been able to do for the past 16 years. Currently in her third year as the director of business development at Brycon Construction in Reno, Reed also owns a custom furniture business, Haus of Reed, in Sparks with her husband, Tim.


Additionally, she served for four years (2015-19) as executive director of the Northern Nevada chapter of NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association.


“There was always this kind of perception of ‘we don’t want women in construction,’” Reed said. “I think there’s always going to be that stigma, but we’re breaking some ceilings, we’re getting there. We’ve come a long way in 20 years. I see a lot of women in roles that 20 years ago would never have been heard of, and it makes me happy.”


Still, Reed’s experience early in her career epitomizes the hurdles some women in Nevada and across the country have faced while working in construction.

Randi Reed is director of business development at Brycon Construction in Reno. Courtesy photo

 

After all, it’s an industry that is made up of only 10.9% women, according to the latest data from the Bureau Labor of Statistics — and only 1% of those women are working on the front lines of a job site.

‘IT WAS EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING’


One of those workers is Nicole Perez, a journeywoman electrician who’s worked in the industry for nearly 18 years, primarily in Northern Nevada.


Originally from El Paso, Texas, Perez said few shops would give her a chance to do skilled labor during her five-year apprenticeship, four of which she completed in Reno-Sparks.


“A lot of the time I was doing things like material handling, cleaning, and doing stuff that didn’t have anything to do with being an electrician or learning about electricity,” Perez told the NNBW. “I was just put on a bunch of grunt jobs. It was extremely frustrating.”


All the while, Perez, who is half-Black/half-white, said she “definitely had to hear a few things that I wasn’t ready for.”
Things Perez still hears today, even when she is a foreman on a job site.


“Recently, one of my male apprentices told me that he thought that white people are actually just naturally more intelligent than Black people,” Perez said. “This was an apprentice telling his foreman (me), who is a half-Black woman. He also said men are more intelligent than women, and that it’s just natural.”


Over the years, however, Perez said she’s seen fewer closed minds and more doors open for herself and other women in the industry.


For Perez, she had a breakthrough a few years back while working on a crew that was doing the underground portion of a massive data center in the region. The foreman on the job site had to step away from the project, and Perez stepped up to fill his shoes.


“I ran the crew that did all of the underground and set the generators and wire them up and everything,” Perez said. “And when that went very well, that’s what made them decide that maybe I might know what I was doing. And so, they stepped me up to foreman.”


Soon after, Perez became the first female instructor at the Northern Nevada Electrical Training Center in Reno, where she teaches pre-apprentices.


Perez, who said she only sees about three female students per year, also helped create Women Build Nevada. The statewide organization, launched in late 2020 in partnership with the Northern Nevada Apprenticeship Coordinators Association (NNACA), supports and promotes women in construction and registered union apprenticeship programs.


“It’s to try to show them there are women in the trades and it’s something that you can do — it’s not unattainable,” said Perez, who serves as president of Women Build Nevada. “We want to find ways to not only recruit women for the trades, but also to help women who are in the trades have someone that they can talk to or somewhere they can go if they’re having issues.


“I don’t want women to have to go through what I went through without having someone who they can talk to.”


BREAKING BARRIERS


Despite barriers — from discrimination to a lack of training opportunities — women continue to build their path in the construction industry.


All told, in 2018, nearly one-third of companies promoted a woman to a senior position, according to Randstad, a human resource consulting firm.


What’s more, female-owned construction companies are also on the rise. From 2014 to 2019, the industry saw a 64% growth in women-owned construction firms, according to a study compiled by BigRentz, an online construction equipment rental marketplace.

Heather Hellickson is owner of Tungsten Engineering Contractors in Reno. Courtesy photo

 

Contributing to that growth is Heather Hellickson, who launched Reno-based Tungsten Engineering Contractors in February 2018. Hellickson, who’s been in construction for 20 years, said she’s seen the industry evolve over the past decades, with more women being brought into the sector for their skill sets.

“Before, it was that a woman always had accounting jobs and (was) more on the business side of it,” Hellickson said. “Now, I see a lot more women in management roles in the field as project managers. I see women actually building the work.”


With a degree in construction management, Hellickson got hired by a general contractor early in her career to lead apartment building projects in Reno. Years later, as owner of Tungsten Engineering Contractors, Hellickson is not only managing projects, she’s also running a company of three construction crews.


“I own my own company, so I’m the safety person, I’m the HR person, I’m the person who has to work on equipment, I’m the one sometimes digging the trenches,” said Hellickson, who grew up on a farm in Northern California. “I literally do all of it, and I embrace all of it.”


‘I JUST ASSUMED I HAD A PLACE’


The construction industry has also attracted women from related industries. Take Tina Mudd, who worked as a project manager in mining for six years before moving into the construction sector.


For the past six years, Mudd has been the environmental manager at Granite Construction in Sparks.


“I do a lot of permit writing for our construction projects that are required to build work,” Mudd said. “And then I also work out in the field a lot to make sure that we are complying with our permits and that we’re doing a good job and building projects with integrity, from both an environmental and safety standpoint.

Tina Mudd is environmental manager at Granite Construction in Sparks. Courtesy photo

 

So, it’s really a neat industry to be in because we work really hard to keep our people safe and protect the environment, all while building things that our community needs.”

Mudd credited her upbringing for giving her the encouragement and confidence to work in male-dominated industries like mining and construction. Mudd said her primary influence was her mother, who worked in the mining industry as a blasting foreman.


“I just assumed I had a place in construction because of how I was raised,” she said.


Yet, Mudd knows many women don’t realize that due to a lack of exposure to opportunities in construction, from jobs in the field operating equipment to management roles leading projects.


“We as an industry still struggle to bring women into construction,” Mudd said. “I would like women to know that there is a huge place for them in the industry, and we are actually benefiting by having more women in the industry because we bring different skills to the table. And I feel like what the industry is starting to realize is they have been missing out for a long time by not being more proactive in recruiting women into construction.”


‘WE CAN ALWAYS BE IMPROVING’


And with the industry in the midst of a decade-long labor shortage — an issue magnified by the pandemic — construction firms have realized that now more than ever.


According to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 81% of construction firms have trouble filling both salaried and hourly craft positions, and 72% anticipate labor shortages to be the biggest hurdle this year.


This leads to an overstretched skilled workforce, project delays and increased costs — meaning, not only are construction companies working to bring more women into the industry, they’re seeking to attract more workers in general.


“You ask anyone in construction what our biggest threat is and it’s skilled labor,” Reed said. “And that’s just hard to find. There are so many young kids, boys and girls, that if they were exposed to the work, they would see it in a different light. We don’t have the woodshop classes anymore. We focus so much on AI and coding and social media — not that that’s not important.


“But look at the prices to build these days, and it’s only going to get worse. And those projects are going to start lacking in quality. How do you mitigate that? You need people. So, I think we can always be improving.”