LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Women make up a very small percentage of the construction industry: around 9 percent, according to government statistics. For African Americans, it’s a little less than 5.8 percent.

Getting those numbers up was the focus of a Feb. 13 session at Partners in Progress, a joint meeting of the Sheet Metal Workers union and the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association.

The union and the contractor group that employs them assembled a panel of women who work in the sheet metal and HVAC industry to discuss how to make the career attractive to other women. Organizers brought Leah Rambo, an administrator with union Local 28 in New York City; business manager Mechelle McNew of Local 464 in Ponca City, Oklahoma; Angela Simon, president of Western Allied Mechanical in Menlo Park, California; and Julie Muller-Neff, the executive vice president of SMACNA Western Washington.

Angela Simon

Angela Simon, president of California’s Western Allied Mechanical, says the industry needs to work to ensure more women and minorities see it as a career choice.

All of the women said the industry had done a lot for them.

“Right now, I feel like everyone should be a sheet metal worker,” Rambo said, who works as a recruiter for the union’s training facility.

Diversity should be an important industry issue, said Simon.

“You become more innovative when you’re more diverse,” she said. “If we don’t focus on it, it’s going to slip away.”

The skills that a person can learn in many facets of the sheet metal or HVAC industry are more transferable than they might expect, Simon added. There’s indoor shop-based work, outdoor work at construction sites, and desk jobs with computers and sales.

Oklahoma union business manager Mechelle McNew

Oklahoma union business manager Mechelle McNew says she has a great career in what she was told was a “man’s job” — union business manager. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t,” she says.

McNew said the industry needs to offer more family-friendly policies such as flexible scheduling and maternity leave to make women consider it as a career.

“Too often, people don’t even know what the industry is,” she said.