Pre-apprenticeship programs help bring greater gender parity to the trades
When it comes to women’s participation in electrical construction, the numbers are bad. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, just 2.4% of electricians were women. Only a handful of other occupations have such low female participation.
While the number of women working in construction trades increased by 17.6% from 2017 to 2018, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the share of women electricians marginally declined.
There is no single element to blame. Instead, a host of small factors—little awareness of the trades, stereotypes, construction’s unwelcoming reputation and more—have deterred women.
Some of the biggest barriers to overcome on the way to gender parity are related to image—what people think of women, what they think of the trades and even what women think of themselves.
High school guidance counselors favor college. Gender stereotypes depict women as unfit for or uninterested in physical work. Women who do show interest in the trades may be deferred to more traditionally “female” occupations such as nursing.
Combine all of these and you’re left with women who don’t see the trades as an option.
According to a survey of more than 700 U.S. electrical construction managers by the University of Oklahoma’s Lemon Construction Science Division, on average women don’t discover the industry until 27—9 years later than men.
Milwaukee first-year apprentice and mom Maggie Rogosienski started her apprenticeship at 34. A premed major in college, Rogosienski planned to go to medical school. However, after graduating, she worked in pharmaceutical sales, owned two personal training businesses and opened a CrossFit gym before deciding to begin an IBEW apprenticeship alongside her brother.
Rogosienski described herself as “completely clueless” with “zero experience” when she began looking into electrical construction.
“It’s really a 180 for me. It’s hard to come across many people that don’t look at me and ask me what the heck I’m doing because they’re wondering why I got into it,” she said.
Genesis Cornejo, Portland, Conn., a third-year apprentice, came to electrical construction earlier than others, but nearly missed the profession entirely. Originally intending to enter a cosmetology program at her trade high school, Cornejo realized she loved electrical work during an introductory session at the school, which had students rotate around the different programs. She hadn’t considered the industry before.
“I didn’t consider myself strong. I just didn’t think I could do it,” Cornejo said.
Most important, there aren’t many examples of women in the trades for guidance.
Lauren Sugerman, director of the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment at Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) said, “it’s difficult to be something you can’t see.”
To combat this, women’s construction organizations create and run ad campaigns and billboards that depict women in the trades to make the image more commonplace.
Amanda Kogut-Rosenau, vice president of programs at Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), New York, also stressed the need to introduce young girls to the trades.
“In general, boys get that exposure through opportunity—they go with their dad to get their car repaired. They’re with their dad or their uncles or their grandfathers when they’re repairing something in the garage or fooling around with some tools,” Kogut-Rosenau said. “We don’t often think to include our daughters in those experiences. And so, from an early age [girls] are not exposed to those experiences, and it’s not shown to them that they’re capable of doing these things or that these things are even something that they might find interesting.”
Until cultural norms shift and this changes, tradeswomen are creating ways to bring these activities to girls. In its annual hands-on career fair, Portland’s Oregon Tradeswomen (OT) reserves one day for middle and high school girls. NEW, CWIT and OT also send tradeswomen into schools to give talks and introduce students to electrical work.
For the last two years, female instructors at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minneapolis, have partnered with the Girl Scouts River Valleys and helped middle-school girls build tiny houses. Alongside students, recent graduates and volunteers from local construction companies, instructors helped the girls construct and raise the tiny house frames last year. This summer, they tackled wiring the houses and installing lights.
Once women show an interest in a career as an electrician, the next hurdle is to get them trained and into an apprenticeship program.
Most pre-apprenticeship programs last 8 to 12 weeks, many offering night and weekend courses, and include introductions to various trade careers, hands-on workshops and work site visits, alongside courses in math and science, OSHA training, tool use and physical fitness. The programs are modeled to look like real work. Punctuality and attendance are highly important and too many missed days can lead to dismissal.
In addition to being free, the programs tackle a host of social and personal barriers, providing participants work boots, clothes and PPE to start their careers along with social services such as childcare and housing vouchers, and funds for union dues, tools and other items for those who need it.
With the expressed goal of getting women into apprenticeships, the programs explain and guide students through entrance procedures and focus heavily on applications, interviews and aptitude tests. Often, male applicants have a connection to the trades—a family member or friend already in the field—which means they have background knowledge to draw on that women do not.
Sugerman raised the example of unions with tight application windows or those that only consider a certain number of applications on a first-come-first-serve basis. Although not a codified rule, applicants with connections are more likely to know they should get in line at 7 a.m. to be one of the first to drop off their application for consideration.
Another issue is that interviews often feature all-male panels, which may be intimidating. More important, when a panel asks, “why do you want to be an electrician?” a man might cite a familial connection to the union, or an interest in working with their hands since childhood. In such a situation, women may feel their interest is different (it may be more recently developed) and answers are seen as less enthusiastic or compelling for a male interviewer who might not relate.
“If there was ever any point in my time within the industry that I was going to have to sell myself or prove somebody wrong—it was going to be that,” Rogosienski said.
To help, pre-apprenticeship programs conduct mock interviews and brush up on skills such as firm handshakes and eye contact. CWIT, for example, hosts esteem- building workshops to help students increase confidence in their skills and knowledge and the resilience needed to prosper in the male-dominated trades.
These programs have a long history—NEW was founded in 1978, CWIT in 1981 and OT in 1989—and are beginning to build their own legacies.
Describing program graduations, Kogut-Rosenau said, “Inevitably, in every audience now, we see somebody’s mother or aunt or neighbor or auntie or just really influential woman in their past in their life who is also a tradesperson and who is almost always a NEW graduate.”
By the numbers, these programs seem to be successful. According to CWIT, graduation rates for CWIT and NEW average around 70%, while OT generally graduates over 85% of their students—of those 80-85% go onto industry positions and 65% entered union programs.
NEW, for example, has agreements with the local union such that 15% of apprenticeships are set aside for program graduates. In 2019, NEW placed 261 students into apprenticeships.
Oregon is a particular success story. Currently 13.85% of the Portland NECA/IBEW Local 48 Electrical Joint Apprenticeship program is female. From 2017 to 2019, 43% of newly registered female apprentices in the program indicated that they were referred by a pre-apprenticeship program.
For each program, students who don’t secure an apprenticeship are offered support to find other jobs in construction to build their skills and resumes.
On the job
The battle is not over once a woman is accepted into an apprenticeship.
Sexual harassment occurs in every occupation and field, but it is particularly dangerous in construction where heavy machinery and high voltage are involved. If women don’t feel safe, the consequences are too dire to stay in the field. They leave and the industry loses.
In a survey conducted by ENR about gender bias and sexual harassment in the construction sector, 36.2% of the 1,200 respondents (men and women), reported experiencing sexual harassment on a construction job site and 37.5% responded they had experienced sexual harassment in the construction sector on workplace premises.
Kelly Kupcak, executive director of OT, said women still struggle to get men to accept them.
“There continues to be outdated attitudes, and often, without good policies and enforcement in place, hostile work environments which allow bad behavior to go unchecked. We have to prove ourselves over and over and over, no matter how good we are or how long we’ve been in the industry.”
Harassment can escalate and even turn deadly.
Two years ago in Fresno, Calif., 32-year-old apprentice carpenter Outi Hicks was murdered on the job by a fellow crewmember following weeks of harassment. After getting involved in a disagreement while removing scaffolding on a project site, Aaron Lopez repeatedly hit Hicks in the head with a metal pipe.
Sugerman says a cultural shift needs to take place in the industry regarding gender, in the same way the safety culture in the industry changed after the creation of OSHA.
According to Kupcak, improving the industry for women improves the industry for everyone.
“The industry is getting smarter about the benefits for all workers when we have safe, respectful and equitable workplaces. These practices mitigate lawsuits, but they also mitigate lost productivity, wages and employer turnover. Worker loyalty, creativity and productivity are better when workplaces are better!”
Rogosienski sometimes feels singled out, not as the target of harassment, but because men are worried they may upset her.
“I’m just here to work. You don’t need to tiptoe around me. I’m here to earn your respect,” she said. I’m here to be part of this tradition. Don’t treat me like a little flower.”
The Industry is overlooking the talent from a huge section of the labor force, if it doesn’t target women and other underrepresented groups to join the workforce. This population will help offset the growing skilled-labor gap the industry is facing as it is expected to need nearly 74,000 new workers through 2028.
Kogut-Rosenau said the old model of finding workers is no longer going to keep up with demand and “it’s not going to provide the true breadth of people and skill that is necessary.” Instead, she explained, the industry must show it “is continuing to evolve and continuing to change and really understands the value of making these opportunities open to everyone.”
As the industry is losing out on skilled workers, women are losing out on a stable, interesting, in-demand career.
“I think people are missing what’s really a hidden gem here,” Rogosienski said. “A career in construction is probably exactly where I should have ended up all along.”