The lights are up, there’s a dull roar of hundreds of voices and the faint scent of wax in the air, and Sherri and I have our wide “Please-talk-to-me” smiles on as we man the booth in yet another College and Career Fair. We’re in the gym of a high school, and we’re buzzing along the aisle, asking students if they’ve ever considered electrical work before.

Now, as anyone promoting the trades knows, many of these students are planning on going to college. But the boys look interested and take a brochure anyway.

A young woman comes to the booth, and I ask, “Have you ever thought about doing electrical work?”

She paused, and almost did a double take to see if I was speaking to someone behind her. Self-consciously, she giggled, as if the thought was ludicrous to her. “No, um… I haven’t.” She then suggested passing the information on to her brother and male friends.

That same interaction probably happened about 12 times in those two hours. The same look of shock. The same uncomfortable laugh. It’s as if it’s never crossed their mind that becoming part of the labor force was even an option for them.

But why not? 

At one point in American history, the number of women in construction fields (“construction” encompassing trades such as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders, etc.) was increasing dramatically. Between 1985 and 2007, the number of women in construction fields increased by 81.3%, a remarkable statistic for such a short period of time. However, when the recession hit, many women left the workforce entirely, and 300,000 left the construction industry by 2010 (OSHA, 2011).

As of 2015, women only made up 9% of the construction workforce (BLS, 2016). Alternatively, it appears as if more women are choosing college instead. It was estimated that in 2017, women made up 56% of student in campuses nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). But with the rising costs of tuition, and the vast number of unemployed and underemployed new graduates, this may be a risky choice. The Economic Policy Institute concluded that of college graduates in 2016, 5.6% were unemployed, while a whopping 12.6% were underemployed (meaning that they are employed, but aren’t able to get enough hours). This doesn’t even include the number of graduates that are considered the “skills/education-based” underemployed (this is your graduate that cannot find work in their field of study, mainly taking cashier or other customer service work in the meantime).

So, why should women consider a career in construction, of all things? 

First and foremost, anyone that works in the construction industry knows that there is something called the Skills Gap. This phenomenon is the shortage of skilled workers. A contributing factor to the skills gap is that these jobs require more training than a high school diploma (since trades are almost obsolete in high schools, in lieu of college prep), but a degree may not even be relevant to the work needed.

With the Baby Boomer population getting ready to retire, an increasing number of their jobs are going unfulfilled.  For example, The National Federation of Independent Business found that 45% of small businesses were struggling, if not completely unable, to find skilled candidates to fill these roles.

Because of this, it is the perfect opportunity for men and women alike to get the training that they need through an apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship to acquire one of these many jobs. These careers develop skills that can be used on the site or at home and have great job security, with the need for construction managers to rise steadily until at least 2024. Not only that, but the gender pay gap is vastly narrower in the construction industry, with women making on average 95.5 cents per dollar compared to the national average, which is 88 cents per dollar (NAWIC).

Besides all of this, employers want to hire more women. Time and time again, our contractor members have told me that they wish they had more female applicants. They admire their attention to detail, their dedication and care in their work, and admire their ability to bring a new perspective to a room that’s typically domineered by men.

And these contractors are right. There are countless benefits for businesses that make it obvious why they want more women in their industry (and particularly, in their company). Many studies show how a diverse workforce increases their bottom line. Gender-diverse work environments are found to have greater team efficiency, team confidence, and group experimentation, leading to the opportunity for growth for the business overall (Herman). This is especially true for companies who have women in their upper management positions. Other benefits include reducing turnover by up to 22%, improving the company’s reputation, representing your customer base, and widening the talent pool (McNally, 2015).

Now, I know that the stereotype for an electrician or a carpenter probably draws the same image for everyone:

That’s not saying that every woman needs to stop what they’re doing and become a welder right now. But this is just a reminder not to limit yourself. If you enjoy working with your hands, and with a team, keep your mind open to the possibilities. If you don’t think college is right for you, don’t try and force a square peg in a round hole (trust me, it’s not worth the student loans). Talk to a project manager of a job site, go to the trades booths at career fairs, shadow a contractor for a day.

Take the time and see if this industry has something for you.

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