As a single mother of two working fast food and retail jobs in the 1990s, Teresa Moore made a quick decision to jump into a carpentry career. At the time, the Preble County woman was one of the few females in blue-collar jobs, but today more mothers and women are finding viable careers in skilled trades.
Women make up 46.9 percent of the workforce, unchanged over the last five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they are becoming a larger share of traditionally male-dominated jobs, including construction laborers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, highway maintenance workers, and truck drivers.
Perceptions are changing surrounding women in these careers, and employers are looking to alternative work forces to fill high-demand jobs that baby boomers are rapidly exiting, said Amy Donahoe, director of workforce development at the Chamber of Greater Springfield.
“There’s not nearly as many women in the skilled trade workforce as their should be … but there has been an uptick,” said Roosevelt Burrell, president and founder of the Minority and Female Skill Trades Association, an organization that works to connect women and minority workers to jobs in southwest Ohio.
In natural resources, construction and maintenance, women made up 4.1 percent of workers in the Dayton Metro area, 5.7 percent in the Springfield are and 3.3 percent around Cincinnati between 2013 and 2017, according to U.S. Census data.
But over the last five years women have made progress in jobs that they’re still a minority in. Women now make up 9.9 percent of construction workers nationally, up from 8.9 percent in 2014; 25.9 percent of agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting jobs compared to 24.7 percent in 2014 and 24.4 percent of transportation and utilities workers compared to 23 percent five years ago, according to BLS.
Meeting workforce needs
Part of the growth is due to a “concerted effort” by local organizations, businesses and unions to attract women to skilled trades, Burrell said.
“The industry is seeking from all areas more because of the lack of participation on everybody’s part,” said Joe Travis, a training coordinator for the southern half of Ohio for the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters.
He works with apprentices and Moore, who at 50 is now a business representative for IKORCC and helps run the Sisters in the Brotherhood Committee. Women in the three-state council have grown more than 29 percent from 320 to 414 members over the last few years, Moore said.
“We reach out to young ladies from Girl Scouts on up to homeless and displaced workers to educate them on the opportunity for women to advance in the industry,” she said.
Others have also seen a growth in women. The Ohio Department of Transportation has increased its count of female workers by more than 1,200 since 2011, according to Matt Burning, ODOT’s spokesman. Local trucking company Jet Express has increased from 2 percent of its drivers being women to five percent in the last three years, said owner Kevin Burch.
The skilled trades positions are some of the most in-demand jobs now, especially as baby boomers continue leaving more openings than there are workers to fill them, Donahoe said. Those baby boomers also entered jobs and rarely left them so women didn’t have as much opportunity to enter the fields before.
“In the past, employers were wanting someone that had experience in those types of roles,” Donahoe said.
That historically wasn’t women, but now employers are more willing to take on someone who doesn’t have much training but is willing to work and learn on the job.
A culture change
Women have faced other barriers to entering maintenance, truck driving and construction jobs as well, Burrell said. Sexual harassment has typically been a concern and women were often the last hired and first fired.
When Moore first started working on home renovations in her early years, a foreman dumped a shovel of snow, dirt and nails over her head as she walked down the stairs.
In the early years of working at ODOT, Rebecca Armstrong, who was one of the first women ever hired into the entry-level highway maintenance worker position, said the male employees would intentionally spill oil under the women worker’s trucks and put smoke bombs under the hoods.
They also made the women do the work they didn’t want to, including pickup up roadkill.
“They weren’t real keen on the fact that ‘eh we have to have women here now.’ They had to take down all their girly posters and they had to behave themselves, so they weren’t real crazy about it I don’t think at the beginning,” Armstrong said.
She was also the first woman ODOT county administrator and will retire this month. She said the culture has changed, and it’s a lot easier for women to make careers in the fields alongside men and experienced women who are willing to teach them.
“Today, the women come into the workforce and they’re just one of the team just like anybody else…the guys take right over and start mentoring and share there experience on things that they have learned over the years,” Armstrong said.
The perception outside the industry is also changing, Burell said. It used to be frowned upon for women to get dirt under their nails on a job site, but now the construction and other skilled trade jobs are viewed as professional services.
“They’re recognizing that it can be a high paying position…A lot of women just want to be skilled trade workers. A lot of women would like to be a painter, or carpenter or an electrician, same as men. There’s a renewed interest on the part of females,” Burrell said.
But it’s still not something that’s presented as an option to most young girls until an opportunity comes up when they’re older, said Alicia Perkins, 29, of Dayton, who joined ODOT’s highway technician team working on guardrails and mowing in Clark County two years ago.
She needed a change from the private EMS field and saw an ad about ODOT’s opportunities. Even though she grew up with a father who fixed fences and decks, she never even thought of the blue-collar jobs as an option, she said.
Roxanne Webb, a 2013 graduate of Wright State and current field safety engineer at Danis, one of Dayton’s largest construction firms, said she was also never presented construction jobs as career options in the same way as her male counterparts, even though she also grew up with a father in carpentry.
She started college in environmental studies, and had never heard of a safety engineer until a professor mentioned it to her.
“As much as I love being in safety and I love my position, I think if I would have known that I could be a an iron worker, or electrician or pipe fitter when I was in high school, and especially since there’s such a high demand and they can have great financial opportunities, that I would have taken that route,” Webb said.
More women on job sites will create a cycle, Moore said, because it shows young girls that there are women working in those careers.
“There’s certainly folks that can remember times when there were gender boundaries around certain job, but we are not seeing that today,” said Chris Kershner, executive vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re seeing employers that want to hire the right person for the job and they’re not really concerned about what their gender is.”
Benefits of blue-collar careers
Because blue-collar workers are so high in demand, Donahoe said now’s a good time to look to skilled trades as careers, especially for single-parents trying to support a family.
“The pay needs to be there to get the look. But to keep a person you’ve got to have the whole package. You’ve got to have a good culture, you have to have great benefits, a lot of times the benefit piece really relies on flexibility,” Donahoe said.
Employers are trying to make concessions to help stay-at-home moms who weren’t previously in the workforce reenter, including hours from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. so parents can be with their children at school drop off and pickup. Some are also creating 12-hour Saturday and Sunday shifts so parents can work on the weekend when a spouse might be home from a day job.
In carpentry, where timelines are controlled by a client, that can sometimes be hard, Moore said. But the industry is adjusting to the flexible needs of a working parent.
Trucking companies are starting to operate relays so women who have older children or be early empty nesters can drive without having to be gone for weeks at a time, said Burch, who is a former chairman of the American Trucking Association.
“If you have a good home life, a good family life, then you’ll have a good work life and a lot of employers are trying to make adjustments to allow for that strong work-life balance,” Kershner said.
In Springfield in 2017 more than 14 percent of family households had only a female householder. Nearly 6 percent had a male householder with no wife present.
“They need people who have the skills and if it’s women that has a family and are willing to work and be there, yet have an obligation at home…employers are being a little bit more flexible with that,” Donahoe said.
The skilled trades not only offer higher wages than some other jobs that often require on-site training and certificates rather than a college degree, but they generally come with health care and other benefits, Travis said.
“In order to support those families, women have to find a job that pays well, and those jobs that are open right now and paying well are the jobs that are in the truck driving industry, in the maintenance and skilled trades area,” Donahoe said.
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