I know firsthand how hard it is to work in the skilled trades as a woman, but I also know how personally and financially rewarding this career can be.
I worked construction for 25 years. I worked in ditches, high-rises, refineries, and factories. I made good money, supported my family, and I am still proud of the work I did. My work provided health care for my family and a retirement pension and I didn’t need a college degree because my training was a multi-year apprenticeship where I learned at a paid job from my male coworkers. Although I left working with the tools 20 years ago, I still consider myself an electrician and proud member of IBEW.
It wasn’t all easy. I was in the first wave of women to enter the construction trades since the Rosies of World War II. I endured significant discrimination and harassment — conditions that still exist in construction as well as many other industries and jobs. And even though women are now around 50 percent of the workforce in the United States, they still make up less than 4 percent of the nation’s trades construction workers. Yet these are real opportunities; there are more women working in construction than there are women doctors.
Making good money
The skilled trades are a path to economic success. For example, skilled trades pay an average wage over $30 per hour in California, and more in many specialty trades. Entry apprenticeship wages start at $20 per hour with paid healthcare and pension. These are family-sustaining wealth-building careers and a tremendous opportunity for women from low-income families.
Additionally, skilled trades offer these high wages without the necessity for a college degree or burden of student debt.Trade workers are trained through apprenticeships, operated jointly by unions and employers, to provide employers with a skilled workforce. Apprentices learn skills through paid, supervised, on-the-job work and supplemental classroom hours and employers recognize apprenticeship graduate certificates nationally. And barriers to entry are low. All that is required is the physical ability to do the job, willingness to learn, a drug-free lifestyle, and to show up for the job every day.
Women can physically do this work
Women in the trades come in a variety of shapes and sizes, just like men. Women now enjoying their pension after 40 years in the trades can prove it. Not everybody is physically cut out for a career in construction, but many more women could do it with some information and motivation. In fact right now, women in the workforce do lots of minimum wage jobs requiring strength and endurance. Women in the service sector, for example, are on their feet and moving all day, performing physically demanding tasks requiring strength and stamina. Hotel maids flip mattresses on a grueling schedule. Nurse’s aides move patients on and off beds. Housecleaners wash and wax floors. All these women use the same strength of body and mind needed for construction work.
Trades work can be satisfying and fun for women too. If you like to work with your hands, be outdoors, be independent, work hard every day, and if you don’t mind getting dirty and working around men, then you can love this work. You gain a sense of satisfaction, self-respect and a decent paycheck every day.