Update: Reporter Mitchell Hartman will appear on the BBC’s “Business Matters” Wednesday to discuss this story.
As the job market heats up, employers are starting to report labor-shortages—especially of skilled workers like welders, machinists, and carpenters in manufacturing and construction.
Those jobs can pay $15/hour or more, and often offer health insurance, a pension, and on-the-job-training, especially if the worker rises through the ranks of a union apprenticeship program.
And for three decades now, Lauren Sugerman, director of the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity at Wider Opportunities for Women has been trying to get more women into well-paying construction jobs.
“The construction trades represent a significant segment of the blue-collar jobs that earn over $20/hour,” she says. “And these jobs are also growing dramatically.”
In the late 1970s, Sugerman herself entered an apprenticeship program for elevator constructors in Chicago. At the time, she says women made up less than 0.01 percent of construction workers. The percentage has gone up, but not by much, in her opinion. “Now, women are 2.6 percent of the construction workforce, so that’s very little progress.”
Sugerman says she left construction work after years struggling against discrimination and harassment on the job. It started right away. “The superintendent who interviewed me said ‘You don’t want this job, it’s too dangerous for you, girls really shouldn’t be doing this, you won’t like it.’ I just kept saying ‘Yes I do.’ And, not very different from what many women still report today, I was subjected to physical harassment, I worked around men who talked about rape in jokes.”
Sugerman became an advocate for women in the trades, working with the Chicago Women in Trades and other groups pushing for gender equality in employment. And she’s well aware of what she missed out on by leaving construction—what women today can be earning if they’re protected and well-prepared and manage to stick it out.
“‘Let’s just do the numbers,’” she quips. “I would currently be making $50/hour as an elevator constructor. Compare that to the wage in a typically female job, $9/hour as a nurse’s aide, preschool teachers are also very low on the scale. That’s a $900,000 to $2 million gap in earnings over a lifetime.”
Holly Huntley runs Environs, a small construction firm in Portland, Oregon. She’s 37 and grew up in South Carolina. She was a debutante in her teens, and started as an amateur in construction during college, helping to manage and maintain an apartment building her family owned.
“After college I just kept practicing on friends’ and families’ properties,” she says. She worked for several small construction firms, moved to Portland, and started her own company. She also teaches in a pre-apprenticeship program for Oregon Tradeswomen. Some of her current employees came through the program.
“I know a lot of women in the trades that experience harassment on a daily basis,” she says. “And what I all my female employees get from subcontractors and people making deliveries is: ‘Where’s the contractor?’ They all think that we’re the homeowner. They don’t even think that we’re working. And the odds are that I’m not the boss. The odds are that the guy on the project is the boss.”
Sajru Dueber has been studying welding at Mt. Hood Community College near Portland. Before joining the program, she taught English, dealt cards, did other jobs to support herself and her daughter. None of them, though, paid as well as a skilled trade like welding.
“I’m hoping to get involved in the train yards,” says Dueber, “do some spot welding on trains, get my foot in the door that way.” She wants to do artistic welding as well. “Ultimately I want my daughter to have the best education she can ,and that will require money, so I hope going into this field will help.”
In her welding program last year, Dueber did a report surveying women’s experience of working in welding shops. “I found a lot of females online talking about how hard it was for them to get a job, how hard it was to get accepted, how hard it was for a foreman to take them seriously,” she says. “And a lot of them were told ‘You’ll be a sexual distraction,’ or ‘Maybe you can’t pick up a box that’s forty pounds,’ or ‘You’re just a woman, I can’t take your application.’ And I’m sure that that’s something I’m going to run into.”