By Julia Park Tracey---
Another in a continuing series---
Women and girls who want to enter the building trades have a number of opportunities these days, from high school programs and college courses to union apprenticeships, and industry experts say that now’s a great time to consider these careers.
According to Meg Vasey, executive director of Tradeswomen, Inc., a non-profit based in Oakland that supports women in the construction industry, women represent just 3 percent of the building trades. She touts the benefits to women considering a career in the trades.
“The pay is really good; the benefits are really good. And if you stick to it, in three to five years, to your journeyman (stage), when you finish, you have a lot of autonomy about your work,” Vasey said.
While in other industries, women are routinely paid far less than their male counterparts (U.S. Labor Department data shows women earned about 82 cents for every dollar a man made in 2016), in the building trades, there is far more equity.
“Union wages are equitable regardless of gender,” said Emiliano Sanchez, director of career technical trades and apprenticeships at Oakland Unified School District. Women in construction generally receive 97 cents to the $1 that men earn, the closest to parity than any other industry, Sanchez said.
Technological improvements in construction tools have eased the physical need for so-called heavy labor, said Sanchez. “We don’t have to be 6’4 and 200 pounds. You don’t have to be the ‘Incredible Hulk.’”
In everything from using computers, to operating cranes, nail guns and jackhammers, “The technology is making an impact,” and gender is not an issue in using the technology. “It’s all about capacity and the passion for it. It still takes strength and stamina, but you’re not swinging a sledgehammer – you’re using machinery, technology. That breaks the barrier of the stereotype.”
“We need to level the playing field for our women,” said Sanchez. He explained how his district schools are offering more traditional shop classes again (see our previous story in this series about vocational education), and offering job fairs and career day events for students.
“The trades are for anybody, but it’s tough, it’s difficult to get in. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of barriers for women. We have to work on eliminating those barriers,” said Andreas Cluver, secretary/treasurer of the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC).
Cluver stressed the importance of information for school girls on career days or at jobs fairs, “Exposing them to the career and making it clear that there is a place for women” in the trades.
Construction work takes “fortitude and grit,” which is not for everyone, according to Vasey, but “wanting to do it will get you through more days than your (physical) fitness.” General requirements on job sites are that candidates be at least 18 years of age and have high school diplomas or GEDs. “You have to be willing and able to get to work every day,” as early as 6 or 7 a.m.
“It’s a drug-free zone,” Vasey also emphasized, “and that includes marijuana. You have to be willing to take and pass drug tests on multiple occasions.” Safety is vital on jobsites, and drug use creates dangerous circumstances around heavy equipment or heights. And the cell phone has to be put away. “You can carry it, but you could be fired” for playing on the phone instead of working, she says. “Your contractor has to make (your wages) plus benefits, plus costs, plus overhead, to make a profit. If you’re on the phone for five minutes, that’s a lot of money.”
The job is “time-sensitive,” Vasey said, even “rigid,” as far as the clock goes.
A worker is expected to be on the site early and to begin as soon as the clock strikes the hour. “Showing up is everything.” And sometimes, a young woman may not be ready for the job, but a few years down the road, a job in construction could be just the ticket, she said.
Vasey advises young women just out of high school who don’t know what they want to do to “take a welding class” at the community college. They will have started down the path to a potentially lucrative career – “And that will be a pathway into the other trades.”
In the current era of the “Me Too” movement, it’s important to note that historically, construction work has been notorious in its machismo. Cluver acknowledged that, in regard to gender diversity in the industry, that “there are challenges that need to be addressed.”
Vasey concurred. “Women are just two or three percent [of the workforce]; you may be the only woman on the jobsite. You need to be forewarned, to be prepared. You need to know what you’re getting into.”
Despite the low number of women in the field, the experts say times are changing, and even a construction site can be an opportunity for growth and enlightenment.
“We push the importance of having women in the trades and on the jobsite,” Cluver said. “There is a kind of macho culture (in the trades) which at times can be counterproductive ...Having a diverse workforce (allows workers to) think outside the box and (it) empowers workers. It can help professionalize (the crew) and improve productivity.”
Julia Park Tracey is a Bay Area writer.