Closing The Gap

An increasing number of women are finding high-paying jobs in an unexpected place—building casinos  

Casinos take a bet on women in construction
Casinos take a bet on women in construction

Every day, thousands of construction workers head to the site of the Encore Boston Harbor casino. It's a group that includes an increasing number of women in hard hats.

"It's a great opportunity, it's great benefits and it's not as hard as people view it as," Savy Man-Doherty, a pipefitter working on the $2.5 billion project, tells CNBC.

Man-Doherty is one of 328 women working construction in every role, from iron-workers to carpenters, at the site. "We're just as hard workers as men on the job site — we lace our boots on time, just the same as they do," she says.

Savy Man-Doherty, a Pipefitter working on the Encore Boston Harbor casino project
 Harriet Taylor

It's taken her 10 years to achieve her goal of becoming a journeyman pipefitter. It's a well-paid union job in which she gets to work with her hands while earning $42 an hour, more than three times what she once made as an office worker at a non-profit. Man-Doherty says the crew at Encore has been incredibly supportive and treats her like a daughter.

The traditionally male-dominated construction industry has become increasingly welcoming to women, who are seen as part of the solution to the construction worker shortage, and a labor force that will help shore up union pensions. Man-Doherty is now the face of statewide initiative to recruit more women into the field, which has won her some local celebrity.

"I went to drop my son off at a basketball camp. This guy walked by me and my friend and said, 'Hey you're from the billboards!'" she says.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has been instrumental in pushing gender diversity on new casino construction projects, issuing a legislative mandate for casinos to increase workforce diversity. It requires licensees to put women in 6.9 percent of the construction jobs, more than double the national average, and the commission has been tough about enforcing the mandate.

"In order to make this work, you have to have a kicka-- champion, and you've got to kick these doors down," says Steve Crosby, Chairman of the Commission.

I think we'll wind up with a better work environment and a better place for our guests to enjoy, because they'll look around and see that we are really reflective of today's society.
Bob DeSalvio
president, Wynn Boston Harbor

"We go union by union, contractor by contractor — 'Do you have that? Have you met the target?'" he says. "If you are an outlier — somebody else is doing 8 percent women and you're doing 0 percent women — we call you out."

But they soon realized there simply weren't enough skilled tradeswomen to meet those goals, so the Commission partnered with unions, non-profits and casinos to get more women in the pipeline.

"It's been very hard," says Michael Mathis, President and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, a $960 million casino project in the western part of the state set to open in mid-August. "It takes a concerted effort, and it really takes a partnership of the local trade unions, as well as the contractors."

MGM's construction workforce exceeded the diversity requirement, employing 7.5 percent women, including an all-female demolition team. In order to meet the gender diversity goals, MGM's contractors must push the requirements down to their sub-contractors, which often involves additional costs, says Mathis.

"You are taking inexperienced labor and putting them on the site, and you're making sure that you train them up," he says. "But we've made that investment, as have our partners."

Encore Boston Harbor just hit the 7 percent mark last month — a milestone achievement for the newly-renamed project which is struggling to emerge from the shadow of a #Metoo scandal engulfing its former CEO Steve Wynn, and threatening the status of its gaming license. President Bob DeSalvio expects high return on investment made in the diversity initiative.

"It's important to get a woman's perspective on every aspect of the job, whether it's the office or it's out here on the construction site," says DeSalvio. "I think we'll wind up with a better work environment and a better place for our guests to enjoy, because they'll look around and see that we are really reflective of today's society."

The recruitment efforts also focus on hiring workers of color and veterans.

A carpenter gets to work at Encore Boston Harbor. 
Harriet Taylor

"As a journey worker, once they reach that level, they can make $90,000 a year, so it can be a life-changing experience, not only for the individual but for the communities in which they live," says Mary Vogel, executive director of Building Pathways, a non-profit whose mission is to create opportunities for low-income Bay Staters to access building trades apprenticeships and careers in construction.

"It actually leads to economic stability and security for everybody," says Vogel.

Building Pathways organizes on and off-site networking events for women in the trades and those looking for a way in. It also encourages women to take leadership roles within the unions and network with men, who may have job leads.

Ten years ago, Man-Doherty was making minimum wage and living with her father. Today, she co-owns a home with her boyfriend and no longer has to scour the grocery store for deals. She attributes her new success to "the [Pipefitters of Local] union 537, and how they helped me along with everything. I'm happy I made the decision to join."

The statewide campaign aims to see 20 percent women employed in construction by 2020. A lofty goal — but the winds of change are blowing in Massachusetts.

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