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Should you build a future as a construction tradeswoman?

Do you want to make $10 per hour as a starting wage and $20 an hour after 4 or 5 years? Do you like working with your hands? Do you enjoy the challenge of fixing things?

Answer "yes" to these questions and you should think about a career in the highway or building construction trades.

Construction workers lay bricks, install and repair plumbing, paint walls, saw wood, and do all the other jobs required to build and maintain everything from homes to highways. You're already familiar with many of the workers' specialties - electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and roofers, to name a few. But tens of thousands of other construction workers have such unusual-sounding titles as glazier, terrazzo worker, sheet metal worker, and stonemason. Many of these jobs have something in common that make them worth considering: They pay well, and they require skills that are frequently in demand. Even more important, though, they offer satisfying careers for people who enjoy working with their hands and seeing the results of their labor at day's end.

And they're all open to women. You may have noticed the absence of one old-fashioned question at the beginning of this article: Are you a guy? That question is outdated now that more than a million women are employed as skilled tradesworkers, thousands of them in construction jobs such as painter and carpenter. For too marry years, women were never given the encouragement to enter this lucrative field. But new emphasis is being placed on recruiting, training, and retaining women in construction in an attempt to keep pace with the changing face of America's work force.

Women Hard Hats? You Bet!

Women enter construction and other skilled trades for the same reasons men do: Job satisfaction, opportunity, and money.

Job satisfaction ranks high among women in the skilled trades. One reason may be that some women are intrigued by a trade long before they think about making a career of it. Chicago painter Erie Magruder entered her apprenticeship in 1978 after years of wallpapering, painting, and fixing things around the house. Her interest really sparked years earlier, when she was still in school, but her curiosity was limited to observation. "I used to look in at the men who were in shop class and think, |Man, they are so lucky,'" she says. Now a tradesworker herself, she's more inclined toward problem-solving than she was before; these days she thinks nothing of taking apart her stove if it's not working properly. "It's interesting being in the trades," says Magruder. "I'm very happy."

Construction is a growing field, with employment expected to increase in almost every occupation within the industry through the year 2005 (see table). And, as Magruder notes, "Once you learn a trade, you can always pick up work on the side."


Learning a skilled trade can open doors of opportunity for women. Unable to find a teaching position after graduating from college, electrician Paula Fisher worked a number of jobs before entering her trade at the age of 32. "I found I could physically work and use my brain, so that's why I chose the electrician's apprenticeship," says Fisher. Now she's found a way to merge her teaching and her trade, working in education and curriculum development for the Electrical Training Trust in Los Angeles. "I love my job now," she says. "I'm doing what my first love is, teaching, and defining my trade. It couldn't be a better job."

Women who finish an apprenticeship and reach the journey level can become blue-collar worker supervisors or even go into business on their own. Women Construction Owners and Executives, USA, a national association for women who own construction firms or make executive decisions in the construction industry, has more than 300 members who promote the role of women in the industry. It estimates that there are over 94,000 women-owned construction firms in the United States.

Chicago pipefitter Wanda Griffin hopes to join that growing trend. She's learning another angle of her trade so she can go into business for herself. "I love being a pipefitter," she says. "It's no longer a case of where a woman belongs. A woman belongs wherever she wants."

From Making Do to Making Buildings:

Wages and Other Benefits

Karen Lynn Hill has been a journey-level carpenter since 1983. She enjoys being part of constructing the buildings that make up Chicago's skyline. She also makes three times as much money now as when she worked desk jobs to make ends meet.

Construction jobs pay well, especially compared to some other fields. Skilled workers in some construction trades might make in one day what minimum wage earners make in a week. The majority of women who enter the skilled trades are in their late 20's or early 30's, have worked in a variety of jobs, and are looking for a better way to support themselves and their families. Their search leads to the construction trades, where entry-level wages are usually much higher than wages earned by women - even those with experience - in jobs such as waitress or retail clerk. (See the accompanying chart for a comparison of wages in selected trades and other jobs.) Opportunities for on-the-job training and advancement may be better for skilled tradeswomen, too.

In 1992, for example, an apprentice steamfitter in Washington, DC, started out at $8.20 an hour, plus benefits, and a journey worker earned $20.49 per hour plus benefits. Increases in wages and benefits are awarded each year during the 5-year apprenticeship program. In many other programs, increases come every 6 months.

Skilled tradesworkers receive wage increases because the training they receive increases their productivity. Women working in some other jobs, however, may not be offered additional training. In other cases, a woman might receive additional training without getting an increase in pay. As Madeline Mixer, of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau office in San Francisco, says, "Learning computer skills might enhance a secretary's job performance, but it's not always reflected in her paychecks."

Another advantage of becoming a journey worker in a skilled trade is that the training is recognized throughout the United States. This may give journey workers a step up over other workers whose jobs have no certification system. Completion of an apprenticeship means mobility, explains Dottie Jones of the United Auto Workers: "The overriding factor is, if you get through this, you can go anywhere."

On the Roof and in the Gutter:

Hazards and Harassment

Although construction workers generally enjoy the challenges of their jobs, not all the challenges are on the plus side for either men or women. Working outside on the first warm day of spring might be almost pure pleasure, but pouring hot tar on a sultry day in mid-August is not. Sending the first gush of water through a new home's pipes can be thrilling, but inhaling sawdust and chemical fumes while working indoors is not.

Because a trade may require such risks as laboring above bridges or working in dimly lit rooms, it's no surprise construction workers are subject to more physical hazards than many other workers and are likely to lose a day or two of work each year because of injury. Hand tools can cause cuts, chemicals can burn and irritate, loose boards and holes can result in slips and falls. Workers must take extra precautions to ensure personal safety on the jobsite.

And although money may be ample while work is plentiful, construction workers are also more likely to have spells of unemployment because of business downturns or poor weather than are workers in most other occupations. No income means no money for car payments, rent, food, utilities, and other expenses. Frequent moves to new jobsites may begin to feel like a chase for steady paychecks, and the constant upheaval can get tedious.

Coworkers don't always make life easy, either. Experienced workers may haze newcomers, much the way some sophomores make life difficult for first year students. Women may also face challenges that many men do not, including harassment. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and is therefore illegal. Education has helped raise awareness of the issue, but enforcement of laws against discrimination remains a problem because legal action can take years to resolve. Many tradeswomen say some men at all levels - from coworkers to supervisors to contractors - are slow to accept women in the industry, which continues to be predominantly male. As a result, sexual harassment is still a fact of life for working tradeswomen. And it's the issue they raise most often when asked about problems on the job.

Magruder says that after 10 years of working as a journey-level painter, she still encounters sexual harassment on a daily basis. "You can ignore it, or you can get uptight about it," she says. "Most times I just walk away from it. But sometimes I lash out." On the other hand, Magruder says things may improve as the number of women on the jobsite increases. "Men help each other, and women will help each other, too," she says. "It's a good feeling to see more and more women working in the trades."

The Skills You Need

Successful tradeswomen tend to be in good physical condition and have good math skills. They may also have some relevant experience, such as doing home repairs. In addition, determination, enjoying challenges, a sense of humor, and emotional toughness are keys to success in these occupations.

Although these jobs require physical stamina, many people think they require more strength than they actually do. "You don't need upper body strength to lift a wrench," says Mary Ellen Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Equity Institute in Bethesda, MD. Women are just as capable as men of performing most tasks. In fact, the shift toward technology has eliminated the need for brute strength previously believed critical for certain jobs. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires the use of special equipment for very heavy jobs, whether they are being done by a man or a woman.

Manual dexterity and good eye-hand coordination are more important than brute strength. Both female and male construction workers need physical stamina for the prolonged hours of standing, bending, stooping, and working in cramped quarters.

Preparing for the Trades

Of course, many duties on a construction site do require physical exertion. And as with employees in any industry, construction workers should not be sent to a jobsite unprepared or unfit to practice their trades. There are preapprenticeship training programs for women, and most now include physical conditioning. Some facilities, such as that of the Nontraditional Employment for Women program in New York City, have fitness equipment on their premises. Other programs incorporate upper body building with hands-on training, such as conducting drills for carrying cement blocks.

Getting into an apprenticeship program is the key to getting a job in most skilled trades. But, as an American Association of University Women survey found, girls gradually lose interest in math and science - and that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for apprenticeships. "Harvard wouldn't give a math scholarship to someone whose application shows no prior interest or ability in math," says the Equity Institute's Verheyden-Hilliard. She suggests thinking of an apprenticeship as a scholarship: If a person's apprenticeship application reveals no prior interest in apprenticeable trades, this might justify eliminating the applicant's name from the list.

You can show interest by pointing to hobbies you enjoy or challenging math classes you've taken, such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. High school computer courses may also give you an edge over your apprenticeship competition. Computerization is now a major component of the skilled trades, notes Sharon Teeple of the Bureau of Labor and Industry in Portland, OR. Naturally, high school students thinking about entering the skilled trades should also take shop courses and mechanical drawing.

Some things that contribute to success in this field are not part of the usual high school routine, though. Los Angeles electrician Paula Fisher spent 9 years in the field. "I had to do a lot of positive affirmation on my own because there was a lot of negative reinforcement on the job," she says. "The perception of other workers, supervisors, and customers had nothing to do with how good I was. That was the toughest part of the job."

Entering and Advancing in a Trade

No formal training is required for entry-level construction jobs. But trainees must have their high school diplomas or GED's before entering most skilled trades, and either on-the-job or formal training is needed to earn journey-level status. Most people learn a trade through on-the-job training or through an apprenticeship, which provides the most thorough training. Apprenticeships are administered by local employers, trade associations, and trade unions. About 45 percent of all apprentices are in training for jobs as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters, sheet metal workers, and others in the construction industry. These programs usually last 3 to 5 years and combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction.

Historically, apprenticeship was the first step in passing a trade from father to son, and the (male) relatives of journey workers were about the only people who could enter the programs. Today, however, Federal laws prohibit such customs. "Nowadays, there should be no such thing as |women's jobs' and |men's jobs' per se," says Arleen Winfield of the Women's Bureau national office in Washington, DC. "But in addition to the laws that are in women's favor, they need to know their rights and how to exercise them." Entrance into apprrenticeship programs is based on tests and interviews, and women cannot be excluded from Federally registered programs on the basis of sex. (See "Apprenticeship," in the Winter 1991/92 issue of the OOQ.)

Still, entrance into these programs is extremely competitive. Various preapprenticeship programs have been established to prepare women and other underrepresented groups for apprenticeships. These programs focus on orientation - providing a realistic understanding of both the good and bad sides of trade work, testing ability and aptitude, alerting people to the problems they may confront and how to deal with them, teaching them basic skills and trade lingo, and offering hands-on experience to give them a better feel for the job.

Programs to attract women to skilled trade careers also address the special challenges women will face on the job. Tradeswomen of Philadelphia/Women in Nontraditional Work, Inc., for example, began in the late 1970's as a support group for women in the building trades. According to program administrator Linda Butler, the program has evolved into a very competitive 6-month training course in which women learn the basics of carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, and forklift operation, all in a warehouse setting. Physical conditioning and math and English training are included - as well as survival skills for entering a job where a student may well be the only woman on a site.

Getting More Information

To learn more about occupations in the construction trades, ask your local community college for information about entering apprenticeships. Visit your public library and State and Federal job centers, which will have information about opportunities in the skilled trades. The Occupational Outlook Handbook and Career Guide to Industries provide more detailed descriptions of skilled trades, job outlook, and other employment information. Services are also available through U.S. Department of Labor organizations such as the Women's Bureau, Job Corps, and the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training. Check the Federal pages of your phone book for the Labor offices nearest you. You may be referred to the regional Labor office serving your area.

Why It's Worth It

Once you learn more about these jobs, you might decide you'd like to pursue a career in the skilled trades. It's likely you won't be as bothered by labels as tradeswomen were even 10 or 15 years ago. Karen Lynn Hill admits the nontraditional label made her uncomfortable when she first entered a 4-year carpentry apprenticeship program in 1979. For a while, she didn't tell anyone, including friends, what she was doing. Earning triple what she was used to making soon justified her enrollment - but she also wanted to prove she could succeed. "It was a challenge for me, and I love challenges," she says.

Now, she feels a sense of accomplishment in being able to see what she's been working on. "I can take my son downtown and show him what I've built," she says. "What I work on will be there forever."

Encouraging Young Women To Enter the Trades:

A Word for Counselors

Despite Federal laws, executive orders, and regulations that provide for nondiscrimination when enrolling participants in training programs or hiring applicants for all jobs, a relatively small proportion of young women are entering the skilled trades. This situation is strikingly different from that in fields requiring college, in which steady improvement has occurred. Women make up just over 10 percent of all skilled tradesworkers and only about 2 percent of construction workers. The failure to attract young women to the construction industry is apparently due in large part to a lack of information. Limited knowledge about women in construction can lead to negative stereotyping, causing high school girls to dismiss what they perceive as an option only for boys.

Several strategies have been suggested that will make students more aware of the possibilities open to them in the skilled trades. For example, focusing on dollars and cents rather than on women as blue-collar pioneers may make the field more appealing to potential tradeswomen. Dottie Jones of the United Auto Workers prefers to call these jobs "higher wage training occupations." To high school students conscious of peer image, she says, nontraditional means "out of the norm" - but money is a common denominator. "We need to start communicating about this whole area very differently if we're going to attract more women," says Jones. High school students, in particular, may need to learn that highly paid jobs in the skilled trades are open to women - and that programs exist to prepare and train them for careers in the construction industry.

To help women gain access to the skilled trades, the U.S. Department of Labor has established goals and timetables for recruiting, educating, and retaining women in these occupations. Recruitment efforts of the Job Corps, for example, include kits featuring women in different trades for which it offers training, as well as posters and brochures touting successful women who graduated from the Job Corps. The trades that Job Corps provides training for include masonry, carpentry, building and apartment maintenance, electrical wiring, landscaping, painting, plastering, plumbing, and solar installation. Mary Silva of the Job Corps national office in Washington, DC, says the agency is also working to increase the number of tradeswomen role models. "Young people more typically are attracted to things they're aware of," says Silva. "That's why role models and expanding the job base are so important."

Beverly Lydiard, assistant superintendent of the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School in Lexington, MA, agrees. "Most women, given the numbers and everything else, will choose a traditional occupation," she says. Minuteman Tech is aware of the misconceptions students may have about nontraditional careers, so recruitment efforts include student role models of both genders. Workshops are conducted for teachers and staff to stress support of students choosing nontraditional fields. "We do everything we can to get the word out that nontraditional is OK," says Lydiard.

Although the numbers of women in many of these occupations is low and women account for only 4.2 percent of the apprenticeships in the construction trades, students need to realize that training program for attracting women have been successful. Entry into training programs in some major metropolitan areas, such as Tradeswomen of Philadelphia/Women in Nontraditional Work, Inc., and New York City's Nontraditional Employment for Women, is competitive; waiting lists are common. Programs incorporated into college curriculums have been successful as well. At Portland Community College in Oregon, a program called the Building Futures in Industry and Trades began in 1988 as an 18-month demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Not only did the program become part of the school's curriculum, it resulted in the creation of an offshoot, Building Workers Entering the Skilled Trades. The Pre-Vocational Training Program in Iowa City originated in 1989 as a career exploration program for community women to encourage and prepare them for entering the skilled trades. Its success is due in large part to its innovative use of the University of Iowa's physical plant facilities and skilled tradesworkers as teachers for on-the-job training. Program Director Susan Buckley says the hands-on portion of training is particularly helpful to women, who often come into the program with a vague understanding of skilled trades based on secondhand knowledge.

Information on programs at local community colleges can best be gained by contacting the schools in the area.

Another stereotype students may have to overcome involves the perception of shop classes and vocational courses as a haven for slow or problem students. "With all the infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt in this country, we all need a much healthier respect for how this work gets done," says Arleen Winfield of the Women's Bureau in Washington, DC. Students in these classes must adhere to strict safety rules and cannot be disruptive. Their work includes using high-powered equipment, calculating fractions, working with precise measurements, and reading blueprints.

"I think people often underestimate the math that is needed for even the most basic of trades," agrees Linda Butler of Tradeswomen of Philadelphia/Women in Nontraditional Work, Inc. The tests given to prospective apprentices usually have a mathematics component. Making math and science education interesting is a goal for many schools, and programs have been developed to do this. Among them are the Center for Occupational Research and Development in Waco, TX, which has created secondary arid postsecondary materials for applied math and science. The Expanding Your Horizons career fair, in Cheyenne, WY, features women in mathand science-related careers, including such nontraditional ones as welder, airplane mechanic, sheet metal worker, electrician, and other building trades. Greater emphasis on math and science careers can help arouse girls' interest in more career choices, including the skilled trades. Once they get an introduction, in fact, many want to know more. In the PreVocational Training Program in Iowa City, for example, about two-thirds of participants completing the 13 weeks of training decide to continue in the trades.

Additional information on ways to help women broaden their career plans is available from regional office of the Women's Bureau. Among the sources is a Directory of Nontraditional Training and Employment Programs Serving Women, compiled by Winfield. It describes training, information and technical assistance, and outreach programs available throughout the United States; addresses of Federal and State organizations, the National Tradeswomen's Network, and other agencies involved in training or employment assistance; and lists publications related to women in nontraditional occupations.

Madeline Mixer, of the Women's Bureau office in San Francisco, offers a guiding principle concerning girls who may not have seen themselves as construction workers: "The important thing," she says, "is that lots of women like this kind of work."
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Green, Kathleen
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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