Lauren Sugerman is the director of Chicago Women in Trades’ National Center for Women’s Employment Equity. Opinions are the author's own.
As someone who has worked in the trades and promoted them for more than 40 years, first as an elevator mechanic helper and then as co-founder of Chicago Women in Trades, I have seen firsthand the impact that securing a job in the trades can have on women’s lives.
A nonprofit, CWIT trains women for high-paying, high-skilled jobs traditionally held by men and advocates for equitable hiring and working conditions. The majority of the women who come to us are struggling to support themselves and their families, living off of minimum wage or some form of public aid, just one paycheck away from disaster.
Apprenticeships in the construction trades start at about $17 an hour, and many women are making over $40 an hour with benefits within three to five years. They are presented with the opportunity to advance and receive meaningful pay raises for the first time in their lives, without having to obtain a college degree or debt.
Some 291,000 women work as electricians, carpenters, laborers, masons, plumbers, painters, sheet metal and iron workers and other highly skilled, high-paying jobs with benefits in the trades. But in recent years, women were still less than 10% of all workers in construction jobs, despite representing half of all nonfarm workers in the general economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When Japlan “Jazz” Allen first came to Chicago Women in Trades, she was two years out of prison and working in a low-paying job as a janitor.
“I felt like I had two options,” Allen said. “I could continue to scrape by in my low-paying job, or I could return to the streets. I didn’t like either of those options.”
Everything changed for Allen when she enrolled in CWIT’s 12-week training program that helps women pass the apprenticeship entry tests and provides them with essential support services that make the dream of becoming a tradeswoman possible. Pre-apprenticeship programs like the ones at CWIT are essential to opening up new opportunities. The federal infrastructure legislation, now pending in Congress, could throw that door wide open.
Earlier this month, the Senate approved a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, but failed to include language from a proposed amendment, championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and 11 co-sponsors, including my own Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, that would have provided effective equity measures designed to increase opportunities for women and people of color in the construction trades and ensure harassment-free workplaces.
As the bipartisan infrastructure bill works its way through Congress to await further debate and a vote, legislators still have the opportunity to transform thousands of women’s lives by setting construction workforce goals for both women and people of color to ensure that these under-represented groups will have a place on infrastructure construction teams.
Legislation should include language that outlines workforce participation goals for underrepresented groups, set a goal of 15% apprenticeship utilization, require the creation and maintenance of respectful workplaces and provide funding for supportive services like recruitment to pre-apprenticeship programs. These revisions have the support of numerous organizations, contractors and international unions, including the Carpenters, Bricklayers, Boilermakers and the one Jazz is a member of, the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union.
In order to have a real impact on the number of women in the trades, Congress must include language making it mandatory that 0.5% of the overall federal and state dollars going to support infrastructure projects would be spent on removing barriers to entry to the trades for women and people of color. Currently, 1% of highway aid funds are allowed to be spent on these types of services, however few states have taken up this option.
While some might argue that simply setting participation targets for hiring should be sufficient, experience has shown that such targets are rarely met, despite the requirement of a good faith effort (which, sadly, can be easily worked around).
Mandatory participation targets work. Massachusetts has more than doubled the national participation rate of women on the job by making participation targets mandatory. Since 2013, 38 projects worth $7.2 billion have used these best practices, and have achieved 7.33% women’s hours. Over half of the women were women of color.
Jazz Allen is now a seasoned tradeswoman who has gained the respect of her coworkers during 18 years in ironworking. She has served as foreperson on multiple jobs, is a leader of CWIT’s board and a dedicated mentor for pre-apprentice trainees and newly minted apprentices on things like how to handle worksite politics.
“I won’t lie, working in construction can be challenging. Women on the job don’t always get the respect they deserve,” she said. “I tell women new to the trade that there are only two phrases you need to survive in construction (and in life): ‘That’s not cool.’ and ‘Really?’ You can shut just about anyone up with those two,” she said. “But clearly more can be done to make the worksite more women-friendly.”
The final version of the bill should include language funding harassment-prevention and supportive services that are vital to ensuring that women who work in the trades stay in the trades. Services like childcare, transportation expenses and the purchase of work-related supplies and equipment can further support women’s access to, entry into, and success in apprenticeships and journey-level positions in the skilled trades.
We urge Congress to ensure that any infrastructure legislation paves the way for women and workers from other diverse groups to enter and succeed in the construction trades and supports policy for inclusive, harassment-free workplaces.