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Inside San Francisco’s $1 million bet on female construction workers

Mission Rock had a problem. The $2.5 billion waterfront development is transforming a parking lot near the San Francisco Giants stadium into a new neighborhood, but its workforce wasn’t meeting local targets. In 2021, Mayor London Breed, announced an initiative to prioritize workforce development for women in city projects, but Mission Rock’s workforce—like most big construction projects—was mostly male.

MRA Grads with Mayor London Breed. [Photo: Johnnie Burrell/courtesy Mission Rock Academy]

Fran Weld, senior vice president for strategy and development for the San Francisco Giants, started thinking about how to fill the hole. It wasn’t just that the project didn’t have enough women working on its construction, it was that there weren’t enough women in the building trades in general. In San Francisco and nationally, women make up only about 10% of the construction workforce.

[Rendering: courtesy Mission Rock Academy]

So Weld decided to create a pipeline of female workers. The Giants partnered with CityBuild, a construction industry training program run by the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, to launch a five-week apprenticeship program called Mission Rock Academy to train women in the building trades. Along with developer Tishman Speyer, the Giants contributed $1 million to the program. Its first cohort of 16 students has now graduated and has begun working on Mission Rock and other projects, showing how the overwhelmingly male construction industry can start to solve a widespread workforce problem.

[Photo: courtesy Mission Rock Academy]

“We’ve made great strides in the last generation of women in leadership roles in architecture, engineering, a lot of public leadership, particularly in San Francisco,” says Weld. “However, that hasn’t necessarily translated to increased representation of the people actually building these buildings.”

Mission Rock Academy is trying to shake up the demographics of an industry that has been slow to change, while also helping the project meet the city requirement for at least 15% women. Getting women to even consider building trades involved a months-long public education process. “When we talk about the building trades as a society, folks think of it as lifting very heavy materials all day. It’s more than that,” says Iowayna Peña, a project manager for the Giants who helped run Mission Rock Academy. “We tried to bring in folks from underrepresented or overlooked populations … Our recruitment efforts really focused on neighborhoods and communities that have not had easy access to opportunities like this.”

[Photo: Barry Fleisher/courtesy Mission Rock Academy]

Aside from misperceptions about the nature of construction work, the organizers of Mission Rock Academy found that there are several big barriers keeping women—and even some men—from entering the building trades. One major hurdle for workers: childcare. “Because of the odd hours of construction, you need to be on the job site at 6:30, sometimes 6 a.m. A lot of times there’s no childcare resource open,” says Weld. Mission Rock Academy partnered with a local YMCA to provide childcare to participants in the program.

Other barriers ranged from transportation access to the need for expensive tools to the general difficulty of taking part in a five-week training program. The program itself was free (although students had to apply and be accepted), and stipends were built into the budget to help participants afford to get involved. “A lot of the barriers that people discuss about what makes it difficult to get into the field weren’t focused just on women,” says Peña.

Students were trained in a variety of common construction skills, ranging from machinery operation to carpentry. After the program, which involved both in-class education and on-site training, the 16 women qualified to join local building trade unions. (Mission Rock Academy took just a third of the time of another construction skills program offered by the city.) “What we have seen is that when you are able to connect women particularly with union representation and support, they do really, really well in the trades and in the construction workforce,” Weld says.

Mission Rock Academy Graduation. [Photo: ©2021 S.F. Giants/courtesy Mission Rock Academy]

Many of these graduates have started working on the Mission Rock project, and Weld says all 16 will eventually be involved. As members of construction unions, they’ll also be working on other projects throughout the Bay Area. Mission Rock will provide years worth of work for them; the project will build more than 1,200 units of housing, a million square feet of commercial space, and eight acres of parks. The first of four phases is under construction now, and the first tenants are expected to move in next year.

Women are a large part of the project overall. Of the first five buildings to be developed, four have female design leads. Weld says this training program is a way to ensure women are reflected throughout the project, but also in the building industry in general. “I hope that what we’ve learned can be a model,” she says.

The next iteration of Mission Rock Academy is being planned now, and future versions could target other groups, including veterans. Growing the project means more women on construction sites, and maybe more women seeing that these jobs are actually attainable. “It’s hard to imagine yourself as a successful person in this space if you don’t see yourself represented,” says Peña. “That’s the big piece that’s missing from the industry.”