Somewhere between 2 and 3 percent. That’s the number of women currently represented in the construction and trade industry workforce in the United States. A nontraditional career for women, to say the least.
But, things are shifting. With attrition at an all-time high and traditional male hiring rates dramatically suffering, trade industries can no longer afford lack of diversity. Hiring women is now both a linchpin for survival, and for future success.
A defining moment for a workforce in crisis
The trades are facing a fast-approaching, dire shortage of workers. Why? According to this recent Washington Post article, it’s a combination of factors combining to create a perfect storm.
Baby Boomers, who dominate the trades’ workplace population are starting to retire, younger generations simply aren’t interested, and work environments continue to be both perceived and operate as hostile and unsupportive toward women and minorities. Plus, the growing opioid epidemic claims more and more lives every year within the male demographic typically tracked for trade jobs.
They need women, and women need and want better paying jobs - with better benefits. Attitudes are slowly shifting, the invitation and initiatives have begun, and progress is being made – even if in small, incremental victories. Here's how.
Education and exposure at all ages
Trade industries are recognizing they need to connect and relate to women at pivotal moments in their lives. That includes reaching out to young girls through educational initiatives, and exposing them to tradeswomen sharing real-life stories about their nontraditional career path. Employers are engaging with PTO, youth, church and other community groups, as well as guidance counselors, helmets to hard hats programs, and correction facilities. In 2015, Ellen Voie, President of the Women in Trucking Association, worked with Girl Scouts to create a badge about trucking. It’s helping remove the stereotype that only men drive trucks.
Local open houses and training programs
Local groups like the Sheet Metal Workers’ Local 10 Training Center in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, are offering regular open houses to attract women in early and mid-life career transitions, where they showcase the benefits of solid pay (well above minimum wage), ongoing training with no college debt, defined career paths from apprentice to journeywoman to specialist, as well as the opportunity to work with new, cutting-edge technologies and tools.
Targeted marketing and advertising
The trade industries are rewriting their marketing and advertising rules with targeted campaigns. Shifting terminology and using targeted imagery showing women actively working in trade jobs seem like simple, obvious changes, but they are playing a significant role in redefining the trade industry workplace. The International Organization of Motor Vehicles (OICA) launched a marketing campaign in recent years through its Summit Academy, including TV ads targeted to women. They saw a 50 percent improvement in female enrollment in their training and placement program, as well as 90 percent retention of these women.
Policy groups, associations, nonprofits and goal setting
President Carter signed an Executive Order in 1978 mandating that women hold 6.9% of work hours on construction projects receiving federal funds over four years. Unfortunately, there was never an enforcement mechanism in place, and most projects today still hover in the 2 to 3 percent zone. Enforcement of and compliance with policies like this one remain major hurdles at state and federal levels.
Some individual states, however, are making strides - including Massachusetts. With the help of the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI), Massachusetts has seen a jump in the number of women in construction apprenticeships jump from 180 in 2012 to 473 in 2016, and several major construction projects in the state have exceeded their goal of 10% of hours earned by women workers.
Other organizations, like Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) in New York, and Hard Hatted Women in Ohio, are also making strides by providing education, workplace assessment and compliance services, sexual harassment training and response programs, as well as toolkits and other resources to employers looking to recruit and retain women.
Paid leave to support working mothers
Organized trade unions have the potential to play a unique role in fighting for and securing benefits for women, including paid leave. While 12 percent of all private sector employees in the U.S. currently have access to paid leave, just 5 percent of workers in the construction trade have access to paid leave.
One union is making an enormous impact on covering and supporting their members. Earlier this year, the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust, revised its maternity leave policy, announcing to members that pregnant women on construction sites and in welding shops can take up to six months leave before giving birth at two-thirds their wages - to avoid dangers associated with heavy lifting, in addition to avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals or fumes. Plus, another six weeks after the child arrives. There’s still a long way to go, but the seismic shift of one pioneering union opens the door for others to follow.
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Looking to the future – redefining culture, improving work-life balance and growing more leaders
The potential of employing more in women in trade industries is great. It provides an incredible opportunity to raise more women out of poverty and welfare, away from low-wage jobs that aren’t paying enough to support a family, or providing women with necessary health and family care benefits to those jobs that can. It offers an opportunity to keep trade industries thriving and profitable – keeping more women and men employed.
While employers, unions and associations are finding ways to successfully recruit more women, the greater challenge lies in retention.
Beyond sexual discrimination, employers must commit to eradicating a culture built around hostile behavior toward women. Workplaces must enforce a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, where all employees have been proactively trained in understanding what harassment is, with a clear process in place for reporting it, and actions taken to stop it. A shift in workplace attitudes and norms must be facilitated by employers and unions, and supported by men and women alike.
And while paid maternity leave is a massive stride for women in trade, employers will seek greater retention by providing benefits that support both men and women in their roles as caregivers. Be it through paid parental leave for mothers or fathers, child care resources and subsidization, or senior care services for those supporting aging loved ones.
Keeping women in the pipeline and advancing them to leadership roles in the trades will come through the support of both men and women mentors. Ensuring women understand how to advance through the very defined levels of a traditional trades profession, as well as navigating the intricacies of gaining leadership roles within organized unions are key. Women must not only be given the maps, but also paired with Sherpas.
More women will come to the trades if employers are saying the right things. But, they’ll only stay if their employers, peers and culture are doing what they can to best support them.
HR Leaders Also Read:
- 8 Ways Organizations Can Advance More Women
- 5 Things We're Still Talking About After International Women's Day
- What Women Want: What it Takes to be a Great Company for Women
- Want More Women in Leadership? Here's How You Can Get Started
- 5 Reasons New Dads Need Paternity Leave