Some workers measure and saw the lumber, while others drill it into place, constructing a ramp to the front door. The lively scene is unremarkable except for one detail: none of the people doing the work are male.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up less than 4% of workers in construction occupations such as carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work. With the entire sector now facing massive labor shortages as baby boomers retire and fewer people enter the industry, women may be an untapped resource.
“My vision is that one day we (won’t) think it’s unusual for women to work in this industry,” Spencer said. “That women (will) do this work, get good wages and create a better life for themselves.”
But that’s only part of Spencer’s mission. Interns also gain hands-on experience working alongside her group’s professional construction team of women and non-binary people who are working on security modifications in seniors’ homes.
“Our program actually solves two problems at once,” she said. “We are bringing women into the industry and also helping older people age in place… It’s a win-win.”
Spencer only developed her skills later in life. She says that as a child, if her parents needed to fix something, they would ask her brother. But buying her first home with her husband and the prospect of costly home renovations changed the situation.
“I realized pretty quickly that my tastes were out of my budget,” she said. “So I just started buying tools and trying to learn on my own. And I realized pretty quickly that I was good at it.”
Over the years, she continued to learn more from family members and YouTube. When she hired contractors for more complex projects, she also had them teach her.
“I would kind of follow them and ask them a lot of questions,” she said. “And then it dawned on me that I had never met another woman… and I started to wonder why that was.”
This question stuck with Spencer when, in her 30s, she left a successful career in human resources to pursue a master’s degree in social work. While working at a homeless shelter helping women get back on their feet, she often offered construction jobs that pay far more than minimum wage.
“Their reaction was always… “No one ever taught me that. It’s a man’s job,” she said. “I realized that there is a gap in opportunities. This is a gap that I can help fill.”
The first few weeks of Spencer’s training program are held in the classroom, where trainees learn safety, blueprint reading, and building math. And then the work becomes more hands-on as they are taught the basics of carpentry, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, masonry and more. Students receive their own set of tools, which they take with them when they graduate.
“We have people from all walks of life who come to us… single mothers, women in recovery, women who are just starting their careers,” she said. “All kinds of different people come together and find a common excitement.”
While the program is free for everyone, Spencer also offers a scholarship for women below a certain income level to help with transportation and childcare.
“If we really want to attract women to this industry, we need to remove all possible barriers,” she said. “We want to make life as easy as possible for them.”
Her approach seems to be working. Since July 2020, over 40 women and non-binary people have completed the program. According to Spencer, two-thirds of these graduates have found employment in the industry.
Rain Clay, 46, is one of them. A single mother of three, she worked for a shipping company for almost two decades until a back injury forced her to find a new direction. Hope Renovations gave her the opportunity to pursue interests she had had for years.
“Junior school was the first time I was introduced – then it was a carpentry workshop. I liked it, but I didn’t see girls doing it,” she said. “Then, when I was about 30… I started taking carpentry classes, but it didn’t work out.”
Clay graduated at the end of March and now works as a project manager for a construction company. Eventually, she hopes to become an interior designer.
“I feel capable of fulfilling my dreams and setting a great example for my children,” she said. “It took a long time, but the wait was worth it.”
And women like Clay aren’t the only ones who benefit from Spencer’s work.
Luvinia Williams, 81, has lived at her Chapel Hill home since 1975. But in recent years, as she began using a cane, she found it difficult to move up and down stairs outside the home.
“It was very hard trying to get in and out because I had nothing to hold on to,” she said. “I almost slipped a few times trying to get in.”
One of her sons uses a walker, which makes accessibility an even bigger issue. She was thrilled when Hope Renovations offered to build her a ramp with handrails and says she was amazed to see the team in action.
“I have never seen all the women in construction,” she said. “Everything is organized. Everyone has a nail, everyone has a hammer, everyone has a piece of board… No men!”
This is one of Spencer’s goals.
“If we don’t see women doing this, other women, they will never see this as an opportunity,” she said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
The job fills a real need for the senior citizens of her community. In graduate school, Spencer learned that if people can stay in their homes as they age, it’s cheaper than moving them to nursing homes and often better for them socially and emotionally. However, many seniors cannot access or afford to make safety modifications such as installing bathroom grab bars, converting bathtubs to showers, and widening doorways for wheelchair access.
“These jobs tend to be small to medium, and many contractors don’t want to take the time to do this job,” she said. “That’s how the idea for Hope Renovations was born.”
To date, the organization’s full-time construction team, assisted by the program’s interns, has completed more than 130 projects, most of them for the elderly. Their work is done on a sliding scale—those who can afford it pay the market rate, allowing the team to complete many projects at a reduced cost or for free.
Launching her nonprofit in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has been a daunting task, but Spencer says she’s incredibly proud of what her group has accomplished.
“We give hope to the people we serve,” she said. “We help them change their lives.”