More women are paving the way as construction managers in North Dakota

Long stereotyped as an all-male field, the construction field has slowly become more diverse. An industry that once primarily hired women to fill office jobs is now seeing an increase in female machine operators, project managers and upper-level managers.

Today's construction industry is changing, with more diversity and more women working both on-site and in management positions. From left: Carey Burke, marketing and membership services director of Associated General Contractors of North Dakota; Molly Swanston, owner, Swanston Equipment Cos.; Sally Miskavige, vice president, Opp Construction; and Nancy Slotten, executive vice president/treasurer of Border States Paving Inc. David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — When Carey Burke was in eighth grade, she remembers her dad, who owned Burke Construction, giving her a crash course in heavy-equipment operation.

He drove her to a sandpit south of Berthold., N.D., instructed her to hop into a loader and showed her how to scoop up a bucket of sand and pile it on the side. Then he climbed out and told her to try it on her own. As a responsible firstborn, she carefully followed her father's lead, scooping up a load of dirt and placing it in the pile. She drove into the pit a second time, scooped up a second load of dirt and, as she backed out of the hole, saw her dad speeding off — a cloud of gravel dust whirling behind him.

“This was like 1982,” recalls Burke, now living in Bismarck. “There were no cellphones and no neighbors for miles. I just kept doing what he told me to do and he showed back up in a couple hours. Boy, was my mom mad!”

Then again, that was life for the daughter of a man who owned a construction company. You learned to pay attention and be careful, so no costly mistakes were made. Back then, Burke didn't realize she would not only grow up to continue working in construction, but to also represent the industry as marketing and membership services director for the Associated General Contractors of North Dakota .

Long stereotyped as an all-male field, construction has slowly become more diverse — both in the type of work it offers as well as the demographics of its workers. Although only 10.3 percent of workers in the construction industry are women, North Dakota’s percentage of women employed in the field is slightly higher, at 11.4 percent. And an industry that once primarily hired women to fill office jobs is now seeing an increase in female machine operators and project managers.


Yet another development has been the number of women stepping into upper-management roles with established North Dakota construction companies. In many cases, this is because the daughters followed in the steel-toed bootsteps of their fathers.

The Forum recently met with several of these women, who spoke of an industry that is eager for diverse workers and even more eager to get a marketing makeover. The group included Burke, along with:

"I think it's the best industry to be in," said Miskavige, who is also president of Associated General Contractors of North Dakota. "And for women, I think it’s super-welcoming in the field and in management roles. Females are a big asset to every organization, especially construction.”
If numbers from North Dakota State University's Construction Engineering and Construction Management programs are any indication, we will only continue to see more female managers in this area in the future.

Construction management undergraduates have increased from three in the fall of 2013 to 12 last fall, said Kyle Bosch, director of communications and marketing for NDSU’s College of Engineering .

Between 2011 and 2014, 10 women earned bachelor’s and master’s degree from NDSU construction programs. Between 2017 and 2020, that number more than doubled, with 21 women earning degrees.

David R. Steward, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Construction Management and Engineering, said the industry is realizing that a diverse workforce makes smart business sense.

“The construction industry has realized the need to increase diversity and inclusion,” he said. “For example, a recent study published by AGC highlights a Deloitte study that showed diverse companies had 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee over a three-year period than non-diverse companies did.’”

Marketing upgrade

Which makes it all the more baffling to Miskavige when someone calls Opp's administrative offices to ask if the company will hire females.


“I think it’s such a strange question. Of course we hire females. We specifically target female workers when we’re advertising for workers,” she said. “I couldn’t think of one thing they wouldn’t be qualified to do.”

Several of the female managers believe the real issue in their field is a marketing problem.

“It’s a great industry and you need to look at the things that some people look at as negative, like it’s seasonal," Miskavige said. "But really, for some, that’s a positive.”

The women point out that workers can make as much in six months as many people make all year, then have winters off for family trips, winter sports or a snowbird lifestyle.

New technology, such as joystick-operated heavy equipment that automatically determines proper road grade, have also made the work easier, safer and less physically demanding than it used to be, they say.

“When you are driving around town, it’s the representation you don’t immediately see,” Swanston said. “You see the surface, which is hard work, outdoors, mostly men. It doesn’t look welcoming. But it’s such an opportunity. You can make a great living and have great benefits and just a great life in this industry.”

All in the family

Slotten, whose dad started Border States in 1967, has the most long-range view of how the industry has changed. She said the field initially grew more inclusive out of necessity. Federal projects had equal-opportunity hiring mandates. When crews had to travel to build roads, some would bring their families in a camper. It didn't take long for the wives and girlfriends to realize that they could instantly double the family income by joining the crew. That’s how Adele Aasen of Grand Forks got involved with Opp Construction.

It was the fall of 1994, and her then-husband told her his construction site was losing crew members because kids were returning to school.


“There was a job basically sitting in a vehicle and counting trucks,” she recalls. “He said, ‘My wife can do that,’ and that was my first job.”

At the end of the season, Aasen asked her foreman if they would hire her back. “I ask so many darn questions, you’re probably sick of it,” she joked.

His response: “We’d much rather have you do it right than just go ahead and do it wrong.”

The next year, Aasen volunteered to run the Soff-Cut Saw, which involved pushing a large, self-propelled saw to cut a straight line through green concrete.

Adele Aasen operates a concrete saw while working on-site with Opp Construction. Special to The Forum

Aasen eventually mastered it and wanted to run a bigger saw.

“I was told they didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “Well, that just made me do it and want to do more.”


Aasen said she was comfortable working outside with all-male crews because she’d grown up with four brothers on a farm.

Even so, there were the occasional crude or sexist comments. “If I didn’t expect that, I shouldn’t be out there,” she said. “I’m able to handle myself.”

Aasen continued running Opp’s concrete saws for 25 years. She was the only woman to do so for years, although, more recently, she was proud to see three women were running saws.

Adele Aasen operates an even larger Core-Cut saw. She operated various concrete saws for Opp Construction over 25 years. Special to The Forum

Now 60, Aasen had to step away from the saw in the last couple of years, as it’s become too hard on her body. But she hopes to remain in construction until she retires.

"If they’re willing to work with me, I’m willing to go back and try my best.”

Good money

One of the construction world’s biggest carrots for attracting workers is the pay — especially for women.


The median full-time wage for women in construction is $46,808, compared to $43,394 for female workers across all industries, according to a recent report by Construction Coverage. While the national gender pay gap across all industries is 19 percent, the gender pay gap in construction narrows to 3.7 percent.

This more equitable pay is also due to federal mandates, such as the Davis-Bacon Act, first passed in 1931. The federal law requires all on-site workers be paid certain wages, benefits and overtime on all government-funded construction projects, Burke said.

So whether a Level III equipment operator is male or female, or has one year of experience versus 10, that worker must receive the same wage, the managers say. Some federal projects can pay as much as $29 an hour, plus $18 an hour for fringe benefits, Slotten says.

Construction workers also experience a unique perk that office-workers might not understand: Whether you’re building a road or the state’s tallest skyscraper, you gain the self-satisfaction that you literally helped build it.

"When you talk to the crews, they’re proud of the work that they do. They get to see their accomplishments,” Slotten said. “They can drive down a road for years and say, 'I did this.'"

More women needed

Burke and Slotten have been in the business the longest, so they've seen the most significant change in demographics. Slotten became the first president of the state AGC in 1999, but before that, she was often the only woman in the room. Burke remembers her mother attending state events with her dad. Even though her mother also helped run the business, she would sometimes find herself being sent off to attend the “ladies’ luncheon.”

But the women also say the industry needs to step up its efforts even more, as there's a shortage of men entering construction work. Some construction roles, such as heavy-equipment mechanics, still attract few females. "We need to tap into the other 50 percent of the population in order to grow," Swanston said.

With statistics showing just 3 percent of young adults are interested in pursuing a construction-related career, worker shortages will only get worse.


Swanston believes proactively inviting children early on to consider construction as a vocation could help.

“It may start with getting into elementary schools and educating both boys and girls, saying: ‘This is so cool, look at the equipment you can operate when you’re older,'" she said.

This promotion could continue into high school, when kids are pondering careers. While the group said they didn’t want to discourage young people from attending college, they added that construction could be the answer for someone who isn’t sure what they want to do yet, can’t afford college or doesn't enjoy school.

"Not everyone is bound to be a four-year student," Swanston said. “You can come work for me and I’ll pay for your school at the tech college. There are so many opportunities for kids that might not know what their path is. Maybe you’re not a tech-savvy person, but you can be a really skilled operator and be like a celebrity in the industry.”

Swanston has been directly involved in the industry a relatively short time — five years — after working in craft beer sales in Wisconsin. She came home and took up family business when her dad, Mike “Swanny” Swanston, started hinting that he might retire.

While she loves the industry and admires the work ethic and talent of her peers, she also longs for the day when the industry can become even more inclusive.

“Granted we have come a long way, but there is a really long way to go to prove to women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc., that there are companies in the construction industry that are trying to be more inclusive and welcoming,” she said.

Want to learn more?

Swanston urges women who are interested in learning more about the industry to reach out to the North Dakota Construction Leadership Council: . "We have an upcoming social in April, where anyone who is interested can come and actually run equipment and play in the dirt at General Equipment’s demo yard near Horace," she says. Stay tuned for further details.

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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