Demo Chicks: Get Black Women Into Nontraditional Roles
By Dianne Anderson
Spoken like a true engineer, Robin Thorne explains how her nonprofit outreach operates in ways that other like-minded engineers can appreciate.
“How would I describe it? Demo Chicks are more of a conduit,” said Robin Thorne, founder and CEO of CTI Environmental, Inc. in Long Beach. “What we like to do is collaborate with organizations that would hire construction managers and then serve as that pipeline.”
Thorne, a chemical engineer and environmental safety consultant, provides services focused on Regulatory Compliance and Construction Management. For her nonprofit side, Demo Chicks is looking to get more young women into industries that are brimming with big money and opportunities.
But she is especially worried that Black women are missing out.
“We have a project now, and I wish I could hire a young Black woman – but then a woman. I have my order of preference. We’re interviewing now, we have a field engineer and an assistant construction management position, and I’m like, where are our Black women?” she asks.
Through CTI, she is always on the lookout for female talent, which helps her succeed, as well as other companies seeking to expand diversity. That’s going to be especially important in the coming years as billions of dollars flow down with the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.
The trades promises good earnings, but she said construction management is not all about the boots on the ground, or hard hats out in the field.
Like herself, it’s the women behind the plans, managing blueprints, scheduling and overseeing documents for distribution. It’s the paper side of the construction project, and it represents a huge area with vast potential.
Her company is currently part of a three expert team working on the 405 Freeway to provide construction management services with the Orange County Transportation Authority. Depending on the project, she said that some teams may comprise up to 40 people participating.
“Every project is different but there’s so much opportunity,” said Thorne, also a former Commissioner with the City of Long Beach’s Sustainable City Commission. “Every construction project you see, the people in hard hats and heavy equipment, there’s a whole team and office managing that. There’s two sides, the CM side and the actual building side.”
Starting at the middle school level, Demo Chicks provides mentors and role models to get girls familiar with nontraditional fields, and lead them through college. They provide scholarships, offer hands-on workshops and tours of experts, and keep close connections with the Society of Women Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers.
Early exposure to the industry is best. She regularly brings in top experts to talk with the girls, most of all so they can see themselves in higher-level positions.
“The biggest challenge is with our girls not knowing that it’s for them. There are several women that are in construction management that we can introduce them to,” she said. “At Demo Chicks, we want to look at trends and where the needs are to start introducing girls to some of those concepts.”
Across the board from technical to environmental to architecture, she feels positive about prospects in construction management, which is sure to see major projects opening up soon. But she believes that more women, especially women of color, need to start reaching to fill some of these roles.
She said it’s important that they see themselves as able to gain top positions despite white male-dominated industries.
Of the construction industry professions, 88% are white, only 10% of construction professionals are women, and 6% are Black, according to the 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Through her company CTI, she offers services focused on environmental controls, making sure that local businesses properly address federal rules around chemical containment. It is also closely related to environmental impact in low-income communities of color.
“From an environmental justice perspective, we support companies by providing them with information so they can comply with regulations, that’s what prevents exposures to the environment,” she said.
Through the pandemic, she said their nonprofit has continued virtual workshops for middle school students, but she said they hope to resume tours as the pandemic recovery gets underway. So far, they completed their 10-month cycles to match the school year, serving about 175 students last year for the online events.
With the trades side of the industry, Thorne is excited to have opened their Demo Chicks membership to include all nontraditional careers, including welding, architecture, automotive and electricians at Long Beach City College.
“One of the things we say is – see it, be it. We’re not just talking about it but we’re actually showing them the people that are doing it,” she said.
Increased efforts in recent years at Long Beach City College are starting to reflect a significant uptick in the number of women entering the trades.
Among their targeted equity outreach for women of color includes DESTINO program, Developing Engaging Science Through Innovative New Opportunities, which focuses on Latinx and low-income students to improve in STEM areas.
Stacey Toda, a spokesman for Long Beach City College, said that in the Fall 2017, they had 118 women in their Trades programs, and by Fall 2020, participation increased to 220 women.
“Long Beach City College has, for many years, worked to encourage women to enter the trades and we have been fortunate to have great female teachers, leaders and department heads who are experienced in their crafts that were traditionally held by men,” she said.
For more information on CTI, see http://www.ctienviro.com/
For LBCC opportunities, see https://www.lbcc.edu/destino