Kane Constructions ACT general manager Jo Farrell hasn’t let anything hold her back from making her mark in the construction industry. She has jumped hurdles, overcome criticism and proven time and time again that women are capable of building successful construction careers.

From an early age, Jo Farrell was interested in the more hands-on activities. When it came to choosing a work experience field at school, she raised her hand to join the boys at the local steelworks – which the school counsellor openly discouraged – while her female peers went off into hairdressing and childcare. Already, at 16 years of age, Farrell started to realise that it was frowned upon for a female to enter a hands-on industry. But that, as well as several other barriers, hasn’t stopped her from achieving a successful career in the construction industry.

Today, with industry experience spanning Sydney, Canberra and even Lithuania, Farrell is the ACT general manager at large-scale commercial construction company Kane Constructions.

When she finished Year 12, Farrell knew she wanted a career in construction and started applying for jobs in her hometown of Wollongong, NSW. Social media didn’t exist back then, so Farrell typed out her CV and cover letter and started handing it out to local businesses.

“I probably applied for upwards of 150 building-related companies, big and small, and received rejection after rejection,” says Farrell. “I heard the typical lines – ‘girls aren’t strong enough’ and ‘we don’t employ girls’.”

“Then, finally I wore a builder down to give me a go, but he told me that I had to work for free for three months and would then decide whether he was going to give me a carpentry apprenticeship.”

“It wasn’t a guarantee, but I thought ‘if that’s my way in, that’s my way in’.”

Farrell worked onsite during the day and at a hardware store at night and on weekends, while juggling jobs in hospitality as well. It was a battle of wills, she says. Every day Farrell turned up onsite and eventually the owner decided to sign her on, but with a classic “you’re not going to last in this industry” comment to boot. Now in her 27th year in the construction industry, she’s clearly proved him wrong.

Completing her first two years of her carpentry apprenticeship in Wollongong, Farrell then moved to Sydney to complete the remaining two with a façade company, delivering high-rise buildings in the commercial construction sector. After finishing her apprenticeship, Farrell made her way through the ranks moving into a leading hand role, a supervisor role and securing a position as junior project manager, studying her certificate three and four in construction, and advanced diploma in construction along the way.

“I then completed my construction management certificate and found myself working as the operations manager of a large structural steel company in Sydney,” says Farrell. “I was delivering huge projects like the Pitt Street Mall underpinning the Centrepoint Tower (now Sydney Tower Eye).”

“I worked non-stop since finishing school, really focused on my career and at 30 decided to travel overseas for a few months.”

A few months quickly turned into a few years. Farrell flew to London, trusting she would pick up casual work along her travels. After travelling for a while, and starting to run low in funds, she received a call from a recruiter offering her a job on a nuclear decommissioning project in Lithuania.

“Someone had sent him my CV and I legitimately thought it was a joke until he sent me these flight tickets to Lithuania to go for an interview,” says Farrell. “I thought, well you only live once – at worst it’s a free trip to Lithuania, at the best it’s a real job – so I jumped on a plane and off I went.”

It was a terrifying and humbling experience, she says, driving out of the capital with a Russian driver who couldn’t speak any English.

“I thought I had made a horrible mistake,” says Farrell. “Here I was driving along in the middle of nowhere, and lo and behold, there was an old nuclear plant located near the border of Latvia and Belarus with upwards of about 500 construction workers onsite.”

As soon as she arrived, the project manager asked Farrell to stay on for what was meant to be a six-month contract – she ended up staying there for three years. Not only was she the only woman onsite, but she also couldn’t speak any Russian, which was the main language spoken by the site team.

“The men onsite didn’t know what to make of me,” Farrell says. “They couldn’t work out why this woman was walking around onsite like a man.”

Due to the language barrier, she had to very quickly learn Russian to understand what her colleagues were saying and soon found out there were some not-so-nice comments being made. One day, after hearing one particularly unpleasant remark, Farrell says she turned around and said in Russian “you know I can speak your language”, which shocked the onsite team to say the least.

Working on the project allowed Farrell to continue her travels, and in three years she had been to an impressive 45 countries, after which she decided it was time to head back home to Australia. Farrell sent all her belongings back home, bar a single backpack which she lived out of for a final 12 months of travel in South America and Africa.

Farrell didn’t want to go back to Sydney, so in 2013 she re-established herself in the next big city close to her hometown – Canberra – where she gained her Class A Builder’s Licence and worked on the Canberra Light Rail Project.

From there, Farrell was offered her current role as the ACT general manager of Kane Constructions. “They interviewed about 22 people; I was the only female and they landed on me as the choice,” she says. “I’ve been in this role now for over three and a half years running the business alongside Kane Constructions operations manager, and my best mate, Philippa Seldon.”

One of the first things Farrell did was start employing women and giving them the opportunities that they’re in many cases overlooked for. When she first joined Kane Constructions, there was only one woman in the ACT arm of the business; today, Farrell leads 50 per cent female site teams.

“We did cop criticism, but it’s not about gender,” says Farrell. “I’m not going to overlook women that have the ability to step into these roles, just because the industry has traditionally gone straight for the male candidate.”

“We’ve worked really hard to differentiate ourselves in that way and are trying to change the language and mindset about women working in the construction industry.”

In tandem with Farrell stepping into her role as Kane Constructions ACT general manager, she started Build Like a Girl – a not-for-profit organisation that aims to encourage, recruit and retain women in the construction industry, which is now supported by industry associations, organisations and leaders.

Built upon Farrell’s own experiences working in the construction industry, Build Like a Girl has helped 18 female apprentices get work in the industry since its establishment in 2020.

“Several tradespeople and I run Build Like a Girl in our spare time, trying to help women get a foothold in the industry in the same way we did,” says Farrell. “The construction industry is going through one of the single biggest skill shortages since World War Two, still feeling the impacts of COVID-19 and the dropout rates for first year apprentices in construction is 55 per cent for men and 74 per cent for women.”

“We need to be looking at long term investment, mentoring and coaching to actually keep women in the industry – we need a significant cultural shift – and that’s what Build Like a Girl focuses on.”

Jo Farrell has continued to prove people wrong throughout her career. Through her role at Kane Constructions and the Build Like a Girl initiative, she strives to create positive change in the industry, hoping to make the barriers she faced in her career a thing of the past for women currently in, or looking to enter, the construction industry.

This article originally appeared on Inside Construction.

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