How women can thrive in the skilled trades
A new research project by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research seeks to find out.
An architecture degree gave Kandice Rogers a 30,000-foot-view of the building trades, but now she is on the ground, getting her hands dirty in the sheet metal industry and thankful for an “unexpected” new career perspective. “I wish I would have known this option was here prior to going to college,” says Rogers, who received her bachelor’s in architecture from the New York Institute of Technology. “I would have saved a lot of financial stress and headache.”
The “this option” being, a job in the skilled trades. Rogers was fresh out of college when the U.S. housing bubble collapsed, freezing the job market and her hopes of working in the building trades. Then a position as a BIM coordinator for a local HVAC contractor introduced her to the sheet metal industry. “I was approached by my best friend’s father, who was a Local 28 sheet metal worker for over 20 years. His company started a job that required them to provide a BIM coordinator,” she remembers. “I had experience from college working with 3D programs so I was hired for the position.”
An “eye-opening” opportunity, the experience helped Rogers change the course of her career. “To go from classroom conceptual design to actual fabrication and installation of mechanical and architectural systems was a learning experience beyond what any classroom could ever teach me,” she says. Wanting more, Rogers applied to join Local 28 as a sheet metal worker apprentice. In February 2017, she finished her apprenticeship to become a Local 28 journeyperson and now works as a draftsperson at Delta Sheet Metal, a large-scale sheet metal fabricator and installer in Hicksville, New York.
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“My career focus was kind of a natural fit for me. Drafting allows me to combine my architectural background with the construction field to solve problems, manage projects and work effectively in a design team setting,” Rogers says. “I don’t think I ever got caught up on the idea that a woman couldn’t do well in this trade. I was coming in blind with an open mind and a determination to do my best no matter what. I couldn’t be more happy and fulfilled by this career.”
With demand for skilled labor projected to reach an all-time high in the next decade, the future of the construction industry may rest on the shoulders of women. Women who, like Rogers, are willing to try a career in the skilled trades. But determining how best to attract and retain a new generation and another gender to the trades industry is a growing topic in a national discussion.
Kandice Rogers and Amanda Filpo. Photo by Sara Villoresi.
Research to Support Women in the Skilled Trades
At the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington, D.C., public policy receives a quantitative and qualitative analysis from a “gendered lens.” One of the leading think tanks in the U.S., the Institute conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences.
Announced earlier this year, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded the Institute a three-year, $750,000 grant to fund research on how to improve retention and advancement for women in construction and manufacturing fields. The grant will enable the Institute to collaborate with a network of women-focused pre-apprenticeship programs and the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues to “collect data, share knowledge, and build capacity on how best to support women in these jobs.”
One area of major focus will be the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, where lack of infrastructure is a barrier to entry into trade and technical jobs for women.
“This project will help to show the diversity of women working in the trades, and make sure that our experiences are counted,” says Leah Rambo, director of training for Sheet Metal SMART Local 28, who is also co-chair of the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues and the advisory board for the project.
Local 28 welding apprentice Jennifer Fox Mann. Photo by Sara Villoresi.
Last year, when SMART adopted an industry-wide change from journeywoman and journeymen to the more inclusive, “journeyperson,” Rambo was one of the women in the union leading the change. A change she says that has been a long time in the making.
“As an industry, we invest a lot in each worker,” Rambo says. “We cannot afford to lose them because our policies do not match the 21st-century workforce.”
Although the number of women in the skilled trades has increased in recent years, women still account for fewer than 5 percent of skilled trade workers, according to research from IWPR. In 2017, women accounted for 3 percent of all workers in construction and extraction occupations, rising to 3.4 percent in 2018 and now at 3.5 percent.
Geographically, the areas with the most growth often have women-focused pre-apprenticeship programs. A fact that seems to suggest that visibility can be a major factor in recruitment. For welding apprentice Jennifer Fox Mann, visibility came in the form of family members. In total, her grandfather, three of his brothers, her father and uncle, a handful of cousins, her brother and now her husband are all sheet metal workers. “I guess it’s in my DNA at this point,” she says.
"There are definitely difficulties that you come across being a woman in a male-dominated industry that you quickly have to learn to navigate through..."
Mann grew up in the union. In attending union picnics, parades and elections, she saw other women making careers in the industry. “I heard my dad talk about women on his jobs when I was little. When I met these women, I realized that they were a lot like me,” she says, describing herself as being raised on housework. “We put an addition on our house, new bathrooms, new floors, decks — anything you could think of. We were always busy fixing things around the house so I knew how to use so many tools that doing that kind of a job didn’t in phase me.”
Mann even calls a few women in the industry “idols.”
“There were a few women who became idols to me and seeing what they could accomplish made me want to be like that,” she says, “so that little girls could look up at me and feel that same sense of wonder.”
Why Visibility is Important For Women in Construction
When Western Allied Mechanical president and CEO Angie Simon entered the skilled trades industry 33 years ago at age 22, there were no idols for her to look up to in the industry. Now as the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s first-ever woman president, she is a symbol of the evolution and a catalyst of change. As part of a recent panel discussion, Simon shared her story of success with other women in construction.
“There was a vice president for Kaiser, a vice president for another mechanical contractor as well as a senior manager of construction technology,” she remembers. “We all shared our stories and discovered that one common theme with us was that we did not envision ourselves in the positions we had today. I never thought I would be the president of Western Allied, and the same was true for the other ladies.”
When a younger woman in the audience asked why none of the women on the panel dreamed of being at the top of their companies, Simon gave it some thought and responded, “It is hard to be it unless you see it.”
Angie Simon, president and CEO of Western Allied Mechanical, is the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association’s first-ever woman president.
“I explained to her that none of us saw, therefore we never really pictured ourselves in these spots,” she says. “However, I was so thrilled that this young woman was determined to get the top position at her company someday — because she had role models that showed it could happen! This is why we need to highlight the role models and mentor the next generation.”
Simon adds, “Fast forward 10 years from now, I hope the numbers will increase significantly, and we will not even be talking about this subject.”
Until that day comes, industry organizations and events like the annual Groundbreaking Women in Construction (GWIC) conference plays a pivotal role in amplifying the conversation. Presented by Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine, in partnership with the construction law firm Peckar & Abramson, GWIC is a forum for women at all levels in the building trades to develop their leadership skills, expand their influence and boost their potential growth in the industry. Held this year May 14-15 in San Francisco, the event has steadily grown over its 15-years history and has sold out the last few years.
“You can see the women, their faces light up because it’s the first time they’ve been to a construction event where women are in the majority,” says Janice L. Tuchman, Editor-in-Chief of ENR magazine. “So it’s a cool bonding experience for women, but we also welcome men. It is so important to the whole idea of advancing women to get men on board with advancing women.”
A submission process helps develop content for the conference. From those submissions, a theme for the conference rises. “We are looking for information that will help people to make their firms more diverse and that explains what are the benefits of making your firms more diverse,” Tuchman says about the conference. “Get ready to contribute. Get ready to engage. Get ready to meet people.”
Janice L. Tuchman is the Editor-in-Chief of Engineering News-Record (ENR) magazine.
Factors That Influence Diversity in the Skilled Trades
A well-sourced infrastructure is one of the leading factors that influence demographic change for skill shortages. Underrepresentation in trade positions often contributes to poverty, says Ariane Hegewisch, IWPR program director for employment and earnings.
“Women’s underrepresentation in these well-paid technical and trade jobs is striking, and a substantial contributor to the wage gap and women’s higher rates of poverty,” she explains. “We have made some progress with improving women’s entry to these jobs. Yet, too often, once they enter, women do not stay.”
"We cannot afford to lose them because our policies do not match the 21st-century workforce..."
The overarching goal of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research is to figure out why women don’t stay in these roles and remove barriers of entry. This can include lack of information, lack of paid maternity/parental leave and protection from harassment. “As well as properly paying/valuing the jobs where a lot of women do work, e.g., in childcare and eldercare,” Hegewisch adds.
Another crucial part of this is to advocate more for men’s rights, such as paternity leave and time for childcare. “And likewise in construction, most guys I am sure do not appreciate the bullying and harassment on worksites,” says Hegewisch. “The Ironworkers’ ‘Be That One Guy’ who speaks up and is an ally is a great initiative.”
When harassment does happen on a job site, it can be an emotionally and physically jarring experience for the victim.
Amanda Filpo, Local 28 apprentice. Photo by Sara Villoresi.
In one story recounted to IWPR, a female plumber recalls why she almost left the trades completely: “I didn’t succeed the first time I entered the plumbing apprenticeship because of the amount of harassment, physically inappropriate touching among other things that happened to me. As a young person, I didn’t know how to handle it and I knew that my apprenticeship coordinator would not have supported me if I complained because he was so hostile to women in the trades. I want to recommend that all apprentices, journeyworkers and apprentice personnel get sexual harassment prevention training - and regularly and thoroughly. It should be mandatory and include lessons on treating everyone with respect and equality, regardless of their race, gender, parental status, sexual orientation.”
Local 28 welding apprentice Amanda Filpo says learning to network while maintaining personal boundaries can be tough for women in the industry.
"There were a few women who became idols to me and seeing what they could accomplish made me want to be like that so that little girls could look up at me and feel that same sense of wonder."
---Jennifer Fox Mann
“Dealing with strong personalities that are not used to women in their workplace, keeping feminine products as a part of your tool bag necessities, and not being offended by crass and crude conversations,” she says, “There are definitely difficulties that you come across being a woman in a male-dominated industry that you quickly have to learn to navigate through.”
She adds, “But for every incompetent and sexist man that you meet out there you come across more male allies who have wives, daughters, or mothers who make sure you feel included and respected.”
Filpo’s father joined Local 28 in 1985. He was the first from his family to join the building trades and later introduced the trade to his brothers, cousins, nephews, and children.
“Growing up my father would take me and my siblings around the city and show us all the buildings he has worked on, from the Statue of Liberty to the fallen Twin Towers,” she says. “I was always proud to know he was a part of creating and building the city we lived in.” Now it’s Filpo’s turn. When she couldn’t afford to attend college, her father introduced her to NEW (Nontraditional Employment for Women), a nonprofit organization that helps women enter the building trades or other male-dominated industries.
After graduating from NEW in 2014, she joined Local 28 in 2015. This year she will finish college and her apprenticeship after pursuing both full-time.
“These past five years has really transformed my life in so many ways and has completely changed my view on the concept of journeyperson,” she says. “More women are entering the trades at higher rates than ever before and are sustaining more longevity within their careers. (But) the growth of women in the industry doesn’t mean a diminishment of men, so I would also love to continue to see the sister-brotherhood community growing out of respect and professionalism.”
She adds, “The best advice that I would give to a woman considering a career path in the trades is to come in with an open mind and a positive attitude. Have a willingness to learn, create healthy boundaries, and educate yourself on the industry. Know that you deserve the opportunity to acquire skills, earn a great living, and thrive in this industry.” Whatever industry one may choose.
This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.