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Shaping the Future of the Trades

Women's Programs | Jan 17, 2023 | Back to List

How employment gaps may bridge the gender gap

By Olimpia Piccoli, New England Crane School Marketing Manager

This article was initially published in New England Crane School’s 2023 Winter Newsletter.

It is no secret the face of our workforce in America is changing. 

With supply chain demands and gaps in employment wreaking havoc for some this winter, it’s becoming increasingly important to diversify the workplace, especially in the field of construction. 

The percentage of women working in construction has been a slow rise, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, totaling 11% in 2021, with only 4% actually out of the office and in the trades. 

While women may be just as competent a crane operator or carpenter as a man, it is often the invisible social and psychological barriers that keep a woman from even pursuing a career in the industry. 

In many cases, girls are not taught to use the tools and equipment that their male counterparts are encouraged to master growing up. If they can get the training and find themselves in the field, they often feel the need to be overqualified to counter this bias. 

As a woman owned business, we wanted to take a look at actionable steps women can make to develop the skills and self-confidence to enter the trades and what employers can do to create a more inclusive and sustainable work environment. 

We spoke with Missy Mackin at Vermont Works for Women (VWW), a non-profit organization based in Winooski, VT aimed at supporting women and girls with hands-on career education as well as prospective employers with the skills necessary to create the kind of workplace that attracts and nurtures this vast pool of future tradespeople. 

Missy has seen a rise in mid-career women wanting out from characteristic roles in administration and into the trades. There is a growing need for immersion in the field in order to develop competency. 

VWW’s Trailblazers Pre-apprenticeship Program gives women the opportunity to learn the basics in a supportive environment, while giving them an opportunity to work hands-on with employers in their community on real-world projects. They focus on NCCER curriculum and OSHA 10 safety certification while exploring a number of trade skills. 

“Self-discovery develops self-advocacy” says Missy. They can’t build skills they don’t even know they have. 

“Get them into some heavy piece of equipment, feel that sense of empowerment and they’ll be ready for something else,” said Tammy Ellis, a lead trainer with VWW, about her experience working with the groups of women that have come through their Women Can Do career exploration events. The shift in confidence only takes one empowering experience; “The woman that gets into the cab is not the woman that comes out.” 

While Tammy may have had the family exposure to power tools and excavators growing up, she believes women are more than capable of learning with the right mindset. Our biggest block is often how we regard our own abilities. “If you think you can, you’re right. If you think you can’t, you’re also right,” she says. 

In fact, women seem to make excellent tradespeople, especially crane operators. Linda T., a female operator who has run crane for over 40 years and has owned her own construction business, says, “Women are more naturally smooth and watch out for everyone around,” often valuing safety, communication and a team approach. 

But women and other minorities may struggle with social isolation if they find themselves in a workplace where peer resistance and doubt of their talent or experience is a daily struggle. 

After years of apprenticeship and making it to the journeyman level, many women are given less qualified jobs, as was Linda’s experience. “They wouldn’t let me operate a crane after graduating, even though 90% of my apprenticeship was running crane at a power plant…they had me on automatic things, pushing buttons.” She may have solved this by buying her own crane and running her own business, but she was still sometimes met with skepticism or surprise by clients and colleagues alike. 

“When hiring, consider the need for community,” highlights Missy. Mentors can be an invaluable resource for anyone looking to enter the trades. She suggests hiring more than one woman at a time to ensure longevity of employee retention. “As employers, it’s your job to create the kind of work environment that they’re going to want to come back to,” says Tammy. 

There are a growing number of resources employers can access towards building a more professional and inclusive workplace. Projects like the Build Your Future (BYF) initiative through NCCER and the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) provide networking, employment resources and education for companies, journeymen, as well as job seekers. 

Without casting a broader net, employers may not be finding the best talent. A more diverse pool of prospective employees means an employer is more likely to find the right fit. Diverse backgrounds and life experience may also lead to new strategies and innovation that give companies a competitive advantage in the industry. 

As the trades and labor workforce dwindles, it will be increasingly important for companies to partner with organizations that nurture the pool of future employees. Initiatives that work with youth, like Skills USA, are an invaluable resource for building a competent and committed community of future tradespeople. 

As we have been saying for years at New England Crane School, we need to stop trying to find new operators and start making them. 

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