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This general contractor gives women free training in construction to help them build new lives

Nora El-Khouri Spencer is a licensed general contractor and social worker who founded the nonprofit Hope Renovations in July 2020. This year, she has been named a CNN Hero.

The North Carolina-based organization aims to provide women with the skills and certifications necessary to secure well-paying jobs in the construction industry.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up less than 4% of construction workers, which includes carpenters, electricians, and plumbers.

Construction workers receive nearly double the hourly pay of restaurant and hospitality workers, most of whom are women.

Nora’s mission is to help females broaden their prospects and earn good wages while rebuilding their own lives.

“My vision is that one day we [will not] think it is unusual for women to be working in this industry,” she told CNN. “That women [will be] doing this work, making these good wages, and creating better lives for themselves.”

The entire construction industry is facing a labor shortage due to retiring baby boomers. Nora’s 10-week program, offered through Hope Renovations, hopes to bridge this serious labor supply gap.

Giving opportunities to women in the construction industry is only one part of Nora’s mission. Through her program, her professional construction team—made up of all women and nonbinary individuals—makes safety modifications to senior citizens’ homes.

“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,” Nora explained.

Nora, who grew up with parents who weren’t handy, only started learning her skills later in life when she had purchased a home with her husband.

“I realized pretty quickly that my tastes were outside of my budget,” she said. “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, Nora refined her skills with the help of family members and YouTube. She would also hire contractors for more complicated work and ask them questions. That’s when she realized something.

“And then, it hit me that I had never met another woman, and I began to wonder about why that was,” she said.

In her mid-30s, Nora quit a successful human resources career to get a master’s degree in social work. She got the opportunity to work in a women’s shelter that helps women get back on their feet.

While there, she would often suggest construction jobs, which would pay more than the minimum wage. But she always received the same response.

“No one has ever taught me any of that stuff, it is a man’s job,'” they would tell her. “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 students are taught safety, construction math, and blueprint reading. Then, they transition to more hands-on training to learn electrical, plumbing, carpentry, masonry, HVAC, and more. When they graduate, each woman gets their own stocked toolboxes.

“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,” Nora said.

Since launching Hope Renovations, Nora has trained over 40 women and nonbinary individuals. Several of them have already found jobs in the construction industry.

The group’s full-time construction team, assisted by program trainees, has finished over 130 projects, most of them for seniors.

Nora is incredibly proud of what her team has achieved since the nonprofit’s founding.

“If we really want to get women into this industry, we need to take out all the barriers that we can,” she said. “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,” she added. “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.”

You can help Nora and Hope Renovations with their mission by donating to this GoFundMe.

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