As Karomy Kimbel waits at Northwest Arkansas National Airport to board her flight for Colorado, she hears it once again.
“What’s the hard hat for?”
With her hard hat strapped onto her carry-on, it’s the same question she hears almost every time she travels for work.
“I’m a plumber,” she responds as she watches the questioner wrestle with that unlikely idea.
She then explains that she’s not a full-time journeyman plumber. She is a regional project manager at Kimbel Mechanical Systems (KMS), a national plumbing, HVAC and electrical contractor based in Fayetteville. She also has her Colorado residential plumbing license and will sit for the Arkansas journeyman plumbing license this fall. She lives in Northwest Arkansas and oversees 17 projects from startup to completion for Kimbel’s commercial housing division in Colorado. Three project managers and nearly 35 superintendents report to her.
Stereotypically believed to be an industry just for men, Kimbel exemplifies a growing number of women who have careers in the construction industry and find it rewarding.
Jobs are there for both genders nationwide, with construction management jobs expected to grow 10% between 2018 and 2028, faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In Arkansas, the number of such jobs is expected to increase by 15% by 2026. Currently, the median annual salary for construction management jobs in the state is $41,380, with salaries ranging between $28,560 and $63,740.
The good news for women is closing the wage gap with men in the construction industry, earning an average of 99.1% of what men make. That’s compared with 85% across all other sectors.
While women make up 47% of the total U.S. labor force, they are underrepresented in the construction industry, making up just 10.3% of the country’s construction workforce.
Cori Miller was undecided on a major at Missouri State University when a friend majoring in construction management encouraged her to take a class.
“I was talking about my interest in math and that I’m an organization freak, and he suggested I try it out. I did, and I was hooked,” she said.
Upon graduating in 2012 with her construction management degree, she was hired as a field engineer by Crossland Construction in Northwest Arkansas. Within three years, she was the youngest project manager in her division, managing projects valued at over $20 million. Miller was the project manager for Northgate Plaza, a $30 million office building in Rogers’ Pinnacle Hills area. She’s now managing the $31 million, five-story Founders Plaza project nearby.
“One of the reasons I’ve been successful in my career is because there was a female superintendent on my first job,” Miller said. “She showed me not to give up because it can be tough. But seeing her be able to work in the construction industry for 40 plus years — she was an excellent mentor.
“Surprisingly, it has not been what I expected coming into it. I’ve had a great experience. I’ve been supported, acknowledged and challenged. I owe it to the women who’ve come before me.”
Nineteen years ago, Tara Fiddler was also influenced by a female superintendent, Tracy Suttle, at Melody Point Builders in Grove, Okla. The company, owned by Fiddler’s stepfather, built high-end homes in a gated community. Suttle allowed Fiddler to help her with projects and exposed her to the process of construction.
“Growing up, I didn’t realize women did stuff like that. From her, I learned to get dirty and see physically what went into building a home or a building,” Fiddler said.
Fiddler moved up to general manager before leaving to work as a commercial project manager for Oelke Construction in Springdale. She is currently a commercial estimator for CertaPro Painters of Northwest Arkansas.
All three women also credit men with their success. “It’s not just the boss who is supportive and encouraging and allows me to be successful. It’s all of the project managers and superintendents as well,” Miller said.
Kimbel believes men in the industry value a feminine touch, something that is lacking in construction.
“Women add a different perspective,” she said. “And the detail, organization and communication to make a project flow. There’s the technical side that women may lack, but that can be taught. The other stuff that can’t be taught as easily, women naturally have. When men look at a set of plans, they see whatever is on the plan, and that’s what they build, where women apply what they’ve learned on previous projects.”
Fiddler said women listen well and can “come up with a decision that will benefit the most [people].”
“Women are calm, strategic and process-oriented, and all of those things help with the construction process,” she said.
In her years in construction, Fiddler has experienced meetings where all questions are directed at her boss, a man, even though she’s the project manager. From the beginning of her career, working hard is how she’s proved herself as a female in the industry.
“There’s nobody out there who’s going to be gentle with you in construction,” she said. “I don’t feel like they gave me an exception because I was female — especially in commercial construction. If you didn’t know the answer, you better find out pretty quick. They’re not going to look at you and think ‘OK, you’re young’ or ‘You’re female.’ You have a job to do, and you need to do it. It was hard, but I didn’t want to be treated any differently because I was a woman.”
Both Miller and Fiddler have problems finding adequate women’s footwear and workwear that meets OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards and are compliant with job site regulations, as they are sized for men. “That’s my No. 1 issue with being a woman in construction,” Miller said.
Hard work and servant leadership go a long way toward being respected on the job, Kimbel said. “By being open to talking to trade-specific foremen and tradesmen that know what they’re doing, and ask questions and have an open dialogue, you gain respect,” Miller said.
In 2018, Miller and Kimbel helped found a chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) in Northwest Arkansas. The group currently has about 45 members and meets monthly “to connect women in an industry that’s not typically made up of women” and “to share, collaborate, network and lean on each other,” Miller said.
Meetings are “not necessarily about issues that we have as women. It’s about the industry. ‘What does your market look like right now? Are you slowing down? Experiencing a boom?’ It’s never focused on the gender per se. It’s how the jobs and the economy in our area are going,” she said.
The number of women in project management will increase in the next few years because of the organizational skills women have, Miller said.
“But I also think of women in the trades — electricians, masons, plumbers — that I see in school right now,” she said. “In five to 10 years, those women will be in the foreman position.”
Fiddler is starting a construction company on the side, building her first home in Bella Vista.
“Because of the opportunities in Northwest Arkansas, I imagine more women will jump into the industry. In the next 10 years, I don’t see any limitations as to why women can’t explode in this area,” Fiddler said.
And like in many jobs, working in construction can be demanding but rewarding.
“It’s a very challenging industry,” Miller said. “But every day you overcome a challenge or a problem, and you feel good about that. You conquer something, and then you feel like you’ve really done something. I love my job. I couldn’t see myself doing anything different.”