Even though women make up nearly half of the labor market today, they’re overwhelmingly underrepresented in technical and trade industries across the United States.
In fact, women make up just 30 percent of manufacturing employees, 9 percent of construction workers and only 6 percent of welders and equipment maintenance service workers — all industries that boast plenty of employment opportunities, decent wages and competitive benefits. What’s more, many of the jobs in the trade industries don’t have the sort of pay disparity that women experience in other sectors of the economy.
All of which is why community and technical colleges in Minneapolis and St. Paul have, in recent years, intensified their efforts to recruit and train women for careers in the trades.
Dunwoody College of Technology and Saint Paul College, for instance, have established scholarship, mentoring and networking programs to help women overcome some of the most common barriers to both entering and thriving in what have long been male-dominated occupations.
“The intentional recruitment effort of the college has been slowly building over the last eight years,” said Tracy Wilson, dean of workforce training and continuing education at Saint Paul College. “We want to make sure that we help them all the way through.”
Adapting to meet students’ most pressing needs
At Saint Paul College, those efforts include a recruitment strategy that involves organizing a twice-a-year event called Women in the Trades Sampler, where prospective students meet with faculty members and mentors to discover career options available in the industry.
There, students also experiment with various hands-on projects to get a sense of what the jobs actually entail — glimpses of how to handle welding tools, flying sparks and extreme temperatures, for example, while also exploring the lesser-known side of the profession: the notion that welders also have to be designers and critical thinkers.
If students decide to pursue training for a job in the trades at Saint Paul College, they become eligible to access scholarships and support services, said Wilson.
The college’s recruitment effort isn’t new. In fact, it’s been about a decade now since it first started trying to get more women to participate in the trade industries. Back then, the main recruitment method the school used, Wilson said, was offering women scholarships that helped them pay part of their tuition.
Since 2015, however, the school has broadened its efforts to entice more women into welding, plumbing, carpentry and tool-making. It’s done so by adding more programs that provide women with financial incentives, but also by establishing mentoring and networking opportunities to help such students thrive in school and beyond.
The school is also trying to adapt to meet students’ most pressing needs. It has put aside funding to help female students and individuals of color with unexpected financial emergencies, for instance — money that comes from a new grant specifically aimed at helping women and people of color pursuing careers in the trade industries.
Connecting students with women in the field
Like Saint Paul College, Dunwoody has created new support initiatives tailored to recruit and train women for technical careers. Among them is the Women in Technical Careers (WITC) program, which was launched in 2015 to serve female students studying technical-related majors.
Maggie Whitman, who manages the WITC program, noted that one of the reasons the program was established is to get more women into the non-traditional programs at Dunwoody, which has long seen low numbers of female student enrollments in its trade and technical courses.
Another reason, she added, was simply the fact that employers are in desperate need for skilled workers, period. “So we saw a real opportunity to teach girls and women about different careers that they might not have considered,” said Whitman.
So what exactly does WITC do for women?
First, it introduces women and girls to the profession through outreach programs in high schools, community centers, nonprofit organizations and college campuses. Second, it awards female students admitted into the program $20,000 in scholarships once they pick technical and trade-related majors at the college.
Third, WITC provides women with regular advising, mentorship and networking opportunities. Through these activities, they get connected with other female professionals in the field and more about the challenges and opportunities in the workplace.
And if some students encounter financial difficulties while in the program, Dunwoody provides them with emergency funds, housing and transportation services. In addition, the school offers a child care stipend, tutoring and internship opportunities, as well as job placement services.
Has it worked?
Prior to the birth of the WITC program, the population of female students at Dunwoody held steady at 12 percent of the general student body. Over the last two years, however, that number has increased to 18 percent, a growth Whitman attributes to the new initiative.
In a given year, the WITC program serves 40 female students, who pursue careers in various technical programs, not just traditional trade jobs, including web programming and database engagement; architectural drafting and design; and engineering drafting and design.
The school also tracks how the women who graduate do financially after they leave Dunwoody. “We saw that … their average hourly wage before they started at Dunwoody was $12 an hour. The average salary after graduation was $20 an hour.”
Like Dunwoody, Saint Paul College has seen an increase in the number of female student enrollment in recent years. Of the 60 students who are now enrolled in the college’s trade programs, eight are women. That number may seem small, but it’s actually more than twice the number of female students who used to enroll in similar programs.
Even so, women are still underrepresented in the technical career programs at Saint Paul College, as they are in the world at large, where women account for nearly 48 percent of the workforce.
Most of the women in the trade programs come to the school after years in other industries, said Todd Hankel, a longtime welding technology instructor at the college. There are some pretty basic reasons for that, says Rainer Haarbusch, dean of career and technical education. For one thing, students often find decent jobs right after graduation; for another, they earn decent starting salaries — usually between $40,000 and $55,000.
What those students find is that there’s another benefit to joining the trades, said Haarbusch — that the jobs don’t boast the yawning pay gulf between men and women that remains persistent in many other industries. “There really isn’t a pay differential,” he said. “You’re paid exactly what you’re worth.”