Spencer is the founder of Hope Renovations, a nonprofit that trains women and nonbinary folks in carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and more so they can access well-paying jobs in construction.
Nora El-Khouri Spencer, 42, is a licensed general contractor and social worker. She launched her North Carolina based nonprofit Hope Renovations during the COVID pandemic with the aim of providing women with skills and certifications necessary to find well-paying jobs in the construction trades. At present, women are severely underrepresented in construction. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise less than 4% of construction workers, which include carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Spencer's efforts are helping women expand their horizons and receive good wages while rebuilding their own lives, CNN reports.
"My vision is that one day we [will not] think it is unusual for women to be working in this industry," she said in an interview with the news outlet. "That women [will be] doing this work, making these good wages, and creating better lives for themselves." The entire construction sector is currently facing a severe labor shortage, owing in particular to retiring baby boomers. Spencer's free 10-week program, offered through Hope Renovations, plugs a major labor supply gap. It's worth noting that construction workers receive nearly double the average hourly wages when compared to their counterparts in restaurants and hospitality work (where women tend to be overrepresented).
However, this is only one part of her mission. Through her program, her professional construction team (all women and nonbinary individuals) makes safety modifications to senior citizens' homes. She explained, "Our program is actually solving two problems at once. We are bringing women into this industry and we are also helping older adults age in place. It's a win-win." Spencer herself only learned her skills much later in life, once she had purchased her home with her husband. "I realized pretty quickly that my tastes were outside of my budget," she shared. "So, I just started buying tools and trying to learn things on my own. And I figured out pretty quick that I was good at it."
Over the years, she has refined her skills through various means such as YouTube. Furthermore, when she would hire contractors for more complicated jobs, she would follow them around and ask them questions. Spencer stated, "And then, it hit me that I had never met another woman, and I began to wonder about why that was." She continued to ponder over the question when, in her mid-30s, she quit a successful career in human resources to get a master's degree in social work. During this time, she had the opportunity to work in a women's shelter, helping women get back on their feet. There, she would often suggest construction jobs, which pay much more than minimum wage. "Their reaction was always, 'No one has ever taught me any of that stuff, it is a man's job,'" she recalled. "I realized there is an opportunity gap. That is a gap I can help fill."
The first few weeks of Hope Renovations' training program are spent in the classroom, where trainees learn safety, blueprint reading and construction math. Then they level up to more hands-on learning. Trainees learn the basics of carpentry, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, masonry and more. When they graduate, they even get their own stocked toolboxes. Spencer said, "We have folks from all walks of life that come to us: single moms, women in recovery, women who are just re-careering. All kinds of different people coming together and finding a shared excitement."
Since she first established her nonprofit, Spencer has trained more than 40 women and nonbinary individuals. More than two-thirds of these graduates have gone on to find jobs in the construction industry. Additionally, the organization's full-time construction team, assisted by program trainees, has completed more than 130 projects, most of them for seniors. While launching her organization in the middle of the pandemic was challenging, Spencer says she is incredibly proud of what she has achieved with her team. "If we really want to get women into this industry, we need to take out all the barriers that we can. We want to make it as easy for them as possible. If we do not see women out there doing this, other women, they will never see this as an opportunity. If you cannot see it, you cannot be it. We are providing hope to the people that we serve. We are helping them renovate their lives."