By Chris Gray, Managing editor of Roofing Contractor magazine. (Read the May 2021 article)
If Brooke Laizure is out representing Whirlwind Roofing & Construction of Oklahoma, odds are she will have to explain that she’s the boss.
“The biggest issue I had in the beginning is suppliers, customers, and salespeople naturally assume that the men in my company are the owners and decision makers,” Laizure said. “I used to take it personally, but I have learned to use it to my advantage by stepping aside, listening, and gathering information. Eventually the truth of who owns the company comes out and the reactions are priceless.”
Sadly, Laizure isn’t alone in this experience, even more so since she belongs to a demographic that catches a lot of flak: millennials. Not only do these women deal with presumptions that they know less than their male counterparts, they have to fight against their generation’s stereotypes of entitlement and laziness.
It’s a problem that, while recognized by many in the industry, still needs to be addressed. And well worth doing, according to advocates that believe this demographic full of motivated and tech-savvy workers may just be what the roofing industry needs to not only emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, but tackle the ever-present workforce shortage.
“Women are the untapped resource in the industry and can be the best asset to your roofing company. Young women are hard and efficient workers,” Laizure said.
The Challenges Facing Women in Roofing
The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 57.4% of all women participated in the labor force in 2019, but were underrepresented (relative to their share of total employment) in construction at 10.3%. Thanks to advocacy groups like National Women in Roofing (NWiR), these women are banding together to make their voices heard.
Ellen Thorp, NWiR executive director, said about a third of NWiR’s members are millennials, so she is well aware of the issues they face. She said that, unless the industry is willing to admit it has inherent biases toward people of color or women, it won’t improve.
“There’s no way we’ll address these issues unless people are willing to be humble and honest about their own inherent bias,” she said. “It’s good people who have good intentions, but they have to be willing to admit they have a blind spot there.”
One of those blind spots is the assumption that young women aren’t as knowledgeable as men, or that they aren’t the ones in positions of authority. It’s something Christie Lambeth, an estimator and project manager at Thomas Roofing in Alabama, said she’s experienced on multiple occasions.
“I don’t know that it’ll always be that way … but if you are on a jobsite and you’re standing there with a man, they always speak to the man. You will never be spoken to,” Lambeth said.
Millennial women also contend with not being taken seriously due to their age. In an industry that values the wisdom that comes with experience, millennials lack the years of involvement like their older coworkers, and are dismissed because of it.
“Our industry is filled with contractors that have been in the business 20, 30, or more years and have the benefit of years of experience and all the advantages that comes with it. These things take time and millennials are impatient,” Laizure said.
Millennials also face stereotypes of being lazy, spoiled and rejecting hard work. Even female millennials have dealt with the stigma, such as Lee Lipniskis, an associate consultant with Cotney Attorneys & Consultants. As a self-proclaimed “elder millennial” (born early in the generation) who made her way in the world during the Great Recession, she said the industry needs to look past generational titles.
“I had zero control of when I was born. What I do have control over is my character, my work ethic, my drive to be a better person every day. So, yes I am a millennial, but that does not define who I am,” Lipniskis said. “I believe that the millennials on the older side of the spectrum are more financially engaged and responsible than other generations partly because of the Great Recession and our need for social good.”
[ Millennial women like Brooke Laizure, owner of Whirlwind Roofing & Construction are an untapped resource that can change the roofing industry for the better. But the industry has a few hurdles to remove to make way for them.]
Delisa DiMercurio, operations manager for Steinmeyer Roofing Inc. in Illinois, said she has experienced this stigma throughout her career in the industry as well. She said millennials are willing to hustle just as hard as the previous generations, and although that work may not resemble how they do it, it shouldn’t be discounted.
“I work very hard so I can support my boys and my husband, and I think the common misconception a lot of times is that we’re not hard workers, but in all essence, we may be hard workers, but it may just show differently than our parents or people in the past,” DiMercurio said.
Younger women must also be mindful of sexual harassment. Devri Pieratt, project administrator with ABC Roofing and chair of the Oregon NWiR Council, said while she falls just short of being in the millennial age range, she entered the industry at a young age and was fully aware of the problem.
“As a woman who has been in the industry for 25 years, I have heard stories from women and men about incidents with sexual harassment,” Pieratt said. “And while I don’t believe our industry is alone in this and I’m fortunate enough to work for a company where this isn’t an issue for me, personally, I think it’s still an issue that people need to be mindful of.”
The Influence of Millennial Women
Millennials are guilty of bucking traditions and questioning authority. This can appear to others as rebellion or disrespecting the past, but it’s actually a strength they bring to the industry. It’s something Elizabeth Calzadilla, CEO of Business 411 in Florida, has used to help enhance the business of more than 350 roofers.
“I’m very open minded and very determined, I’m not stuck in one way of thinking. I’m willing to evolve every day, and that’s something that the youth have today that maybe our older generation (doesn’t have)— of course, there’s exceptions to every rule — but they’re more willing to try new things, more willing to care for others,” Calzadilla said.
More and more, roofing companies are learning that everything from digital measurements to new CRM systems are the way of the future, and millennials are more than ready to adopt this technology. After all, it’s the generation that grew up experiencing the jumps from dial-up modems to 5G smartphones, cassette tapes to Spotify, and chat rooms to SnapChat.
“Technology wise, we know more about computer programs and how they work, or we’re quicker about picking it up,” said Lambeth. “My previous job, a lot of the old-school guys do things the old-school way and write it or draw a lot of things by hand, and the younger generation can pick up the programs quicker.”
The flexibility that millennials bring to the table, combined with their familiarity with technology, served the roofing industry well in the COVID-19 pandemic as people had to stay at home and social distance. Companies had to update their processes, such as switching to cloud-based apps, digital signatures for contracts or communicating online, to keep up.
“It brings a new perspective to the older, traditional guys that might fight back a little bit. But they start to see the benefits of using more modern technology while still showing the younger generation you still have this hard-work mentality where you have to work hard and sell these leads and be the best at what you do,” said Kim Loman, account executive with RoofSnap.
Even before the pandemic, women are proving to be effective communicators with customers. Millennials in particular like the idea of building relationships with customers, said DiMercurio, and believes this will be advantageous as more people use virtual interactions in a post-pandemic world.
“I am seeing more wives, mothers that are the decision makers when it comes to any repairs on their homes,” DiMercurio said. “I’m a mom myself, so if I’m going in and I’m working with a customer to sell a roof and their kids are running around, it’s just like home, and I’m going to be right there with them and it’s not going to phase me, and sometimes that speaks volumes to moms.”
Recruiting the Next Generation
The roofing industry has suffered from a workforce shortage long before the pandemic, and will continue to unless it can recruit younger generations. For millennials, a big draw is the mentorship that their superiors can provide.
“They are definitely impressed by people who have worked hard and been successful, but they are definitely irreverent to anything that even suggests some sort of ‘stuck in time’ sense of ‘we have to do things this way because that’s the way it’s been done,’” said Thorp.
One misconception the industry can dispel is that roofing only involves climbing onto roofs and manual labor. The opportunities available to women in roofing are varied, whether it’s sales positions, distribution, ownership and everything in between. Lipniskis started her career as a property and casualty insurance claims adjuster who found work at a roofing company in 2012 thanks to her experience with roof damage claims.
“I absolutely love the roofing industry. Yes, it can be a struggle and defeating at times, but for me the benefits outweigh any challenges,” she said. “A large advantage of being a woman in the roofing industry is that we are a small group, but we are a mighty one. When you see another woman in the industry, you are somehow automatically connected with them and can relate on a deeper level. I feel like we get things done.”
Something near and dear to millennials is not only doing good work, but doing good in the world. Showing that roofing is essential and helps people live better lives, or supporting charities or community service projects, goes a long way to speaking to millennials searching for a career.
“Millennials in particular are used to being another number or dollar sign to big corporations, as we’ve seen with the encouragement to shop local and support small businesses,” said Loman. “There is a larger emphasis on emotions with this generation, and feeling like a valued member of society.”
Part of the solution is to not only attract millennial women, but women of color. Calzadilla said one way the industry can do this is for companies to highlight hard workers from all walks of life.
“There’s people like myself, I’m Latina, who are already winning and not using anything as a disadvantage,” she said. “If we show their success, it will attract more people.”
Of course, there is a universal incentive that speaks to millennials: making enough money to pay for a home and/or student loans. Laizure said the financial freedom that roofing offers was a key factor, but like other millennials, appreciates how valuable roofing is to others.
“During a summer break from college, I decided to ride along with my dad, who was a sales manager for a general contractor, to make some extra money. I quickly realized that you can help people while also making your financial dreams come true,” Laizure said.