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Women in Skilled Trades

Apprenticeship Helps Women Enter, and Advance in, the Skilled Trades

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted industries and hurt workers. But through the turmoil, new opportunities are emerging for apprenticeships in skilled trades for women.

As the global economy adjusts to the new realities of life during a pandemic and we prepare for the day when COVID-19 is behind us, workers must begin developing new skills to meet the new challenges industries will face. To gain these skills in short order, workers will need high-quality and proven employment training opportunities like apprenticeships.  

An old tradition

Apprenticeships have been around since the middle ages. An apprentice learns a job by doing it, and receives high wages and a comprehensive package of benefits while working toward a formal qualification known as an “industry-recognized credential.” People who complete apprenticeships earn more over their lifetimes than those who haven’t participated in apprenticeships. It’s a win-win for workers and for their employers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, people who complete apprenticeships earn an average annual salary of $70,000 — and 94 percent stay with their employer after they have finished the program.

However, there is work to be done. This rosy data belies the fact that women and people of color do not receive the same benefits from apprenticeship that their white male peers do. For instance, apprentices are a key talent pipeline for the skilled trades, but only 2.2 percent of apprentices in the construction trades are women, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And in 2017, only 7 percent of apprenticeship completers were women, according to the Center for American Progress.

Compared with men, women — especially women of color — simply do not have the same degree of access to apprenticeships, and their rate of successful completion of these training programs is lower than that of male apprentices. But we can change these outcomes through intentional and coordinated efforts.

New initiatives

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is leading one such effort in partnership with the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute. The initiative, the Industrial Manufacturing Technician (IMT) apprenticeship program, helps workers in advanced manufacturing production occupations build new skills and competencies and prepares them for apprenticeships in more advanced occupations.

One of the initiative’s primary goals is to recruit more women to the IMT apprenticeship and help them complete the training, which is accomplished through two main strategies.

The first is designing the instructional portions of the program in a way that allows participants to access the training in person, online, or through other distance learning platforms. This creates virtual cohorts of female apprentices from various organizations, providing opportunities to build supportive relationships and to encourage one another to complete the training.

Secondly, the program assigns “apprenticeship navigators,” mentors who connect female apprentices to supports such as childcare or transportation services. The navigators also serve as sounding boards and resources to help women in the IMT apprenticeship grapple with the challenges that come from working in a male-dominated workforce and culture.

As a result of these and other strategies, 62 percent of participants in the IMT program are women. Over the past five years, more than 150 women have been trained as electricians, machinists, industrial machinery mechanics, and CNC operators.

Women who have participated in JFF’s IMT apprenticeship say the program increased their confidence and helped them achieve higher job satisfaction.

“Definitely do it!” said Sarah Sanchez, who recently completed the program. “It’s valuable information for you to learn. Don’t doubt yourself—if you really try and apply yourself, you can do it.”

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