Labor shortage? We need women

Feb. 12, 2018
Let’s get moving on the most practical solution to meeting the labor shortage.

Let’s get moving on the most practical solution to meeting the labor shortage. Think of all the people you know or encounter on a given day. Of all those people, see if you can think of someone who:

1)    Wants a career that has favorable future job security.

2)    Is looking for well-above-average pay and benefits.

3)    Desires less direct supervision.

4)    Doesn’t want to sit at a desk.

5)    Would like a good pension plan.

6)    Isn’t interested in four years of college, much less paying for four years of college.

7)    Values variety in a job.

8)    Is intrigued by the possibility of owning a company someday.

9)    Enjoys the empowerment from working in a nontraditional career.

10) Is a woman.

Pay particular attention to question #10. This is a tremendous time for women to investigate the possibility of a career in the trades. Everyone knows about the labor shortage hitting our industry, and it’s just going to get worse. In fact, in some parts of the United States, construction is slowing because there are not enough tradespeople to do the jobs that are available. Our economic growth could come to a grinding halt because there are simply not enough skilled laborers available.

Today, women are in every working environment. They represent 47 percent of the labor force. They drive tanks in the military, they manage large corporations, they are engineers, astronauts, taxi drivers, police, clergy. They work hard and they’re everywhere —everywhere but the trades.

While technical colleges report they have done extensive marketing to attract women into the trades, the result has been that for more than 40 years, the numbers have barely moved.

Less than five percent of all tradespeople are women. To say that women are underrepresented in the industry is similar to the Black Knight in the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when he says, “It’s merely a flesh wound.” We’re hemorrhaging badly.

I conducted a thoroughly nonscientific, random survey at my company to find out why more women haven’t gone into the trades. Now, mind you, this is a company that sells to the trades, so we have every reason to continue to foster growth within the trades. We talk about the trades all the time here. So, when I posed the question to numerous female co-workers, I was naïvely expecting to hear some well-thought-out career planning that simply excluded the trades as a choice for one reason or another.

It turns out, there is a very simple answer to the question: It was never a consideration. Not anywhere on anyone’s radar screen. When I asked the question, “Why not chose the trades as a career possibility?” I got a lot of puzzled, thoughtful looks along with, “Hmmm, you know, I never even thought of the trades.”

Young women just don’t think about being electricians or plumbers or carpenters. It wasn’t that they were for or against the trades. It’s just that they never even thought of the trades as a possibility. Which begs the question, “Why not?”

Addressing the disinterest

After some additional discussion, there were some underlying viewpoints that revealed why women rarely consider the trades.

Many expressed concern about the trades’ stereotype that makes them non-female-friendly (huge understatement). The trades are often associated with heavy-lifting, trash-talking, dirty conditions with a male-dominated workforce that is intimidating or downright harassing toward women. A quick check of the Department of Labor and OSHA websites reveals a plethora of articles and statistics that bear out these sentiments.

There are substantial barriers, for sure. If there is ever going to be a change that invites women into the trades, it will have to include respect and cooperation. There is no room in today’s workplace for harassment of any kind, and the trades are no exception. We are going to have to clean up our act.

And, without question, one of the main obstacles that working women face today is how to build a career while raising a family. What about maternity leave? What about school events for their kids? What about day care? How are these going to translate into the workplace?

The good news is that other career fields have already figured this out. Typically, male-dominated professions, such as manufacturing, mechanics, construction managers and property managers, are increasingly hiring females to fill needs and are providing some essential benefits to attract them, such as onsite day care, paid day care, maternity leave, and schedule flexibility to accommodate kids in school.

But attracting women into the trades is not enough. Educational training is a key piece of the puzzle.

Increasing awareness

While technical colleges report they have done extensive marketing to attract women into the trades, the result has been that for more than 40 years, the numbers have barely moved. But, thankfully, we are making inroads.

A local vocational school here in Minnesota, Dunwoody Institute, has just initiated a program called WITC — Women In Technical Careers. They offer a two-year program for women who want to become HVAC technicians. The program, which offers up to $10,000 per year in scholarships (in addition to other state and federal grant money) and up to $1,500 per year in child care, has a 99 percent placement rate into jobs, with an average starting salary of $41,410.

The program provides monthly professional development workshops, targeted advisory and academic support, and a strong peer support network. (See for more information.)

In addition, the state of Massachusetts has initiated a “Girls in the Trades Advisory Group” that holds career fairs around the state to encourage young women into the trades. Awareness is key here. Young women can’t choose the trades if they don’t know about the trades.

And back in 1981, tradeswomen in Chicago formed the Chicago Women In Trades (CWIT) organization “to improve women’s economic equity by increasing their participation in high-skill, blue-collar occupations.” What started out as a support group has expanded its role by creating opportunities and promoting education about the trades.

Around the nation, these types of groups can be found in almost every major city. A quick Google search of “women in the trades” will get you thousands of hits with thousands of new ideas and success stories to help us bridge this gap.

Show ‘em the money!

Table 1 shows some compelling financial reasons for women to enter the trades. And these figures do not include medical or dental benefits, pension benefits, or vacation benefits. It’s a very attractive offer!

Salaries in the trades are even more compelling when you compare them with several career paths dominated by women that also do not require a four-year college degree. (See Table 2.)

To put it into perspective, switching career fields from being a hairstylist to being an electrician would increase a person’s income $960,000 over 30 years. That’s nearly an additional one million dollars in income! And an apprentice in the trades, just starting out, makes $10,000 annually more than the median salary earned by women.

Without question, there is a financial incentive for women to at least look at the trades as a viable career option. And because many of these are union jobs, the pay for men and women is exactly the same. (You can’t say that for too many other professions.)

Yes, there is much work to be done, and it will take a pioneering spirit for women to begin this journey. But the rewards are clearly visible, and the possibilities are nearly limitless.

One day — in the near future, I hope — it will be commonplace to see men and women working side-by-side, building and maintaining the infrastructure of our country together. We can make the changes needed to ensure this happens. We just need to band together and bring awareness and education to the forefront.

Are you ready?

I would be grateful to hear your thoughts, ideas and stories. You can reach me at [email protected]. Until the next time, best regards and happy heating.

Steve Swanson is the national trainer at Uponor Academy. He actively welcomes reader comments and can be reached at [email protected].

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