Women in Construction: A New Approach to Solving the Skills Gap
We’re thrilled to have a guest post from Lorien Barlow, director of the first feature-length documentary about women in construction trades, Hard Hatted Woman, as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month. She led a popular panel at AU 2018 with the workers featured in her film, discussing the realities and possibilities for women in the field of construction. Here’s what she has to say:
On a recent rainy Thursday afternoon in the Bronx, students at the Bronx Design and Construction Academy trickled into the auditorium for an after-school event. The New York City Coalition for Women in Construction was hosting its inaugural recruitment event, Women at Work: A Career Fair for Girls. Earlier, at tables in the hallway, tradeswomen from local unions had been chatting with students about these exciting nontraditional career paths. Now, the same tradeswomen were getting ready to put on a Tradeswoman Fashion Show. They were decked out in full work regalia, from hard hat to steel toe and a belt brimming with the tools of their trade. At the emcee’s cue, each woman struts down the auditorium aisle “runway” to the stage, strikes a pose, flourishes her tools, and sashays away to raucous applause. Judging from the gleeful expressions on the students’ faces, I’m sure that more than a few high school girls (and boys) looking on that day went away with a new-found curiosity and fresh perspective about careers in the building trades.
Across the country in Portland, Oregon, thousands of girls have enjoyed a similar spectacle at the Women in Trades Career Fair. This visionary event has been hosted by Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. (OTI) for the past 29 years. The creator of the original tradeswoman fashion show, OTI hosts a 3-day career fair extravaganza to expose girls to the joys of the trades. Students are given hands-on opportunities to solder a pipe, wire a light, climb a column, operate an excavator, scramble up a utility pole, fix a burst water main, and try their hand at virtually every trade. The students are sometimes tentative but usually smiling, and they often erupt in laughter or squeals of excitement. To watch them is to be reminded that construction work requires no particular gender, intrinsically. Nothing but historical circumstances has made these trades the exclusive domain of men, and those circumstances are aging fast, along with the traditional work force.
Along with pervasive anxiety in the construction industry about lack of skilled labor has come a new focus on recruiting nontraditional demographics into the trades, particularly women, and for good reason. The building trades remain the most gender-segregated occupations in the US. Therefore women represent a vast untapped labor pool. Moreover, women find the trades an attractive option, as these union jobs offer paid training through apprenticeship and excellent wages and benefits, and they don’t require a college degree or crushing student loan debt. In fact, construction work is higher paid than 75% of the leading occupations for women. So, while some worry that blue-collar careers have become a tough sell, make no mistake: the problem is not the product. The problem is that we’re not pitching to women.
As the filmmaker behind the documentary Hard Hatted Woman, I have spent years having conversations with both tradeswomen and industry executives. And what I have observed is a bizarre disconnect between the professed need for skilled labor versus actual efforts to signal that demand and solidify recruitment pipelines for women. While industry leaders panic about the labor shortage and puzzle over how to recruit more women into the field, tradeswomen and their advocates have been rolling up their sleeves and working where the rubber meets the road for decades now. These are women who understand the pitch. They put strong, enthusiastic, and diverse tradeswomen front and center. They emphasize personal empowerment. They meet girls and women where they are and make the trades feel accessible for the first time.
There are only a handful of programs like OTI nationwide—pre-apprenticeship programs designed exclusively to recruit women and help them prepare for apprenticeship. All of them are nonprofit organizations that cobble together their funding and compete for tiny federal grants. These organizations’ outreach and recruitment events are done on shoestring budgets, and supported by thousands of volunteer hours, most of which are donated by tradeswomen already working full-time jobs in exhausting manual labor. The movement to get more women into the trades has historically been propelled by grassroots efforts like these, led by actual working tradeswomen, who are driven both by a desire to be less socially isolated on the job and by their natural tendencies towards collaboration and building. It’s high time we learned from them, funded their programs, and multiplied those efforts.
One recent success story about such a collaboration comes out of Boston, where the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has prioritized gender and racial diversity in all of its building projects, setting an ambitious goal of 20% women in their trade workforce by 2020. To help reach these goals, the Mass Gaming Commission partnered with the Northeast Center for Tradeswomen’s Equity (NCTE), a tradeswomen-led policy and advocacy group, to launch the Build A Life That Works program. This first-of-its-kind partnership is laser-focused on recruiting women into union apprenticeships through a highly visible education and outreach campaign that put tradeswomen’s faces on billboards and subway stations. In the program’s first year, the statewide number of women in union apprenticeships jumped 30%. Stories like this should put to rest any doubt that ambitious goals are achievable. The key is for developers and end users to first set ambitious diversity goals and then collaborate with tradeswomen advocacy groups to achieve them.
Those who are serious about bringing more women into the trades need not reinvent the wheel. The solutions to this problem have already been designed. They have been articulated by policy experts, tested by tradeswomen, and proven by every apprentice whose journey started when she first saw a hard-hatted woman and thought, “If she can do it, then so can I.”