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One woman's experience mirrors construction trend

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by Paul Flemming

SBJ Staff

Regina Thornton had called a number of companies looking for work in the construction industry. She needed a job and was willing to work and learn.

The 24-year-old was met with dismay before she was rejected.

"I was looking for a place to get into construction," Thornton said. "They'd say things like, 'Are you calling for your boyfriend?'"

The frustration continued until she contacted Advance Fence Corp. President Alan Parry gave her a job, and she went to work Oct. 8. Parry said he never had any reservations about hiring Thornton and has been pleased with the results.

"I'd hire five of her," Parry said.

The 3-year-old business has experienced a great deal of growth in the last year, and Parry said finding workers in a tight labor market has been a challenge.

"Plenty of people have come in and out of here in the last year," Parry said. "I've got guys who come in and say they know it all and can do it all, but they don't."

Thornton has worked on fencing jobs with a subcontractor supervising and recently on her own, installing wood and chainlink fences. In addition, Thornton has office duties. "She's capable of doing the installations and watching the office," Parry said.

"My friends are like, no way, you don't build fences," Thornton said. Installing fences is "not what I imagined. It's hard work. I didn't have any idea."

Though Thornton said "people look at you funny" when she arrives on a job site, her confidence in herself is growing. "I like it. I appreciate (Parry) giving me a chance."

Debra Ferguson, owner of D. Ferguson Construction Inc., is president-elect of the Springfield Contractors Association, the first woman to hold that position. Throughout the ranks of the construction industry, women are filling what were once considered nontraditional roles.

Sheryl Letterman, executive of the Springfield Contractors Association, said the number of women in the industry is increasing, though that number remains small. She said employers are increasingly aware that ability and willingness to work are more important than gender in considering applicants for employment.

"Debra was not elected because she's a woman," Letterman said. "She was elected because she's effective, and people can see that." It's the same with employees, she said.

And educational efforts, such as Ozark Technical Community College's Project CREW, are introducing more women into the building trades.

Jennifer Jackson, director of Project CREW, said she estimates women make up about 5 percent of Springfield's construction work force. "I know (the numbers of women) are getting a little higher every year because we have a training program for women," she said.

Parry said hiring Thornton was not a matter of particular enlightenment, but good business.

"Where I draw the line, it's if they're capable," Parry said. Thornton, he said, has proven herself so.

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