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Women lag in well-paid blue-collar jobs

Mitchell Hartman Mar 27, 2015

Women lag in well-paid blue-collar jobs

Mitchell Hartman Mar 27, 2015

With the job market getting tighter, employers are starting to report shortages of skilled workers, especially in manufacturing and the construction trades—for jobs like welder, electrician, carpenter and machinist. The Manufacturing Institute, part of the National Association of Manufacturers, predicts there will be two million unfilled jobs at American companies by 2025 due to the so-called “skills gap.”  The American Welding Society estimates that the building and manufacturing industries will need 290,000 additional welders, welding instructors and the like by 2020.

Employer groups, labor unions, women’s advocacy groups and government policymakers all see women as part of a potential solution to the coming blue-collar labor shortage. But so far, progress to recruit more women to training programs and jobs in the construction trades has been slow.

“We’ve seen the desegregation of many occupations—bus driver, mail carrier, firefighter, police officer,” says Lauren Sugerman, director of the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity, a research and advocacy program of the Washington, D.C.-based group Wider Opportunities for Women. “But we have not seen the same movement of women into the construction trades.”

Sugerman says that is a significant failure because such occupational segregation leaves women out of lucrative jobs that require skill and training but not necessarily an expensive four-year college degree. Construction jobs — often through unions — also frequently come with health coverage and a pension. She says the difference between traditionally male-dominated blue-collar jobs and traditionally female-dominated “pink-collar” jobs can lead to “between a $900,000 and $2 million gap in earnings over a lifetime.”

WOW has compared the top occupations (by participation) of men and women, and found big gaps in pay (see chart). The top three occupations for women include secretary ($665 median weekly wages), registered nurse ($1,086), and cashier ($368). For men, they are truck driver ($736 median weekly wages), manager ($1,409) and first-line supervisor of retail workers ($792).

And, says Sugerman, women are poorly represented in jobs such as roofer, carpenter, electrician, and ironworker. All of those jobs can pay $40/hour or more once a worker reaches journeyman status. “Women are now 2.6 percent of the construction workforce,” says Sugerman, “so there’s been very little progress.”

Making progress on that gender gap starts in a smattering of nonprofit pre-apprenticeship and skills-training programs around the country. They’re supported by unions, employers, and community colleges, and teach women basic tool use, applied math, and work site job safety.

Holly Huntley owns Environs, a small construction firm in Portland, Oregon, and regularly brings women onto the job site to train them through a pre-apprenticeship she teaches in that is run by the nonprofit group Oregon Tradeswomen. Huntley has hired two graduates from the program. Once they reach journeyman status they’ll make $26/hour.

Huntley says she’s glad to be able to offer a woman-run construction workplace.

“I know a lot of women in the trades that experience harassment on a daily basis,” she says. “I think it’s history, it’s a male-dominated culture with the catcalls and racial slurs and gender-based slurs and jokes. And I can’t have that, I have a really low tolerance for that.”

Journeyman carpenter Dan Ewing is the lone man on Huntley’s crew. “When I mention that everybody else in the company is a woman, people tend to raise their eyebrows,” says Ewing. “But it’s really nice. Men are fine, but we tend to be pretty crass. Everyone here is just more civilized.”

Where there are pre-apprenticeship programs, like in Oregon, the number of women making it to construction apprentice and journeyman is rising. Unions and employers often support the programs—to boost women’s participation and counter discrimination, and also to deal with a growing shortage of skilled workers.

That support has made a big difference for Heather Mayther. She’s 32. Last year she did a free training program with Oregon Tradeswomen, went on to another training program and is now an apprentice in the local carpenter’s union.

Mayther has three-year-old triplets and she has been earning $19.69 an hour, plus getting family health insurance. “Gender-wise, I didn’t really notice any discrimination or anything like that,” says Mayther of the construction sites she’s worked on so far. “The crew was great, they were more than willing to show me what I needed to know.”

She says she has been catcalled, and propositioned for dates. She says her supervisor has her back when she complains. “I’m not here for a husband, I’m here to work. I’m here to work my butt off, and to take home a paycheck that I can live on.”

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