By Cindie Alwood, executive director, Women’s Center of Greater Lansing
“But I’m a girl,” is often the response when talking with girls and even women about working in the skilled trades. Let’s change that to, “I’m a girl and I’m strong, skilled and trained to do this job!”
Many people don’t know what skilled trades are – they just think those jobs are dirty, involve heavy lifting and there will be men yelling obscenities all day. They’re not interested. But skilled trades are so much more than that, and they’re one of the only occupations where even apprentices make a living wage.
There is pay equity in the skilled trades. Women and men get paid the same wage for the same work. And, depending on the trade, it’s also one of the only occupations where there is always work available, and often there are shortages of qualified workers. You will rarely, if ever, be unemployed. Certain skilled trades are seeking women employees because of our work ethic, attention to detail, pride in our work and ability to be both a team player and work independently when necessary. Certain jobs in the electrical field require smaller hands and fine motor coordination. Technology is changing the way a lot of jobs are done, and that includes the skilled trades.
Being a female in a male-dominated industry is still intimidating for some women. The Women’s Center of Greater Lansing has partnered with Women in Skilled Trades (WIST). Together, we help meet the need for skilled trades workers and help women earn a living wage with benefits and a future retirement. WIST is an apprenticeship readiness program. When women graduate from the 13-week program they are ready to start an apprenticeship. All the necessary pre-requisites will have been completed during the program. Giving women the what they need to be successful in a skilled trade is more than providing steel-toed boots, a hard hat and sturdy gloves. In addition to the fundamentals of working in a skilled trade, the WIST program talks openly about sexual harassment on the job (and what to do about it to stay safe) and provides physical workout routines to build upper body and core strength.
One thing we have learned in our inaugural class is that work goes beyond the job site. The societal barriers women still face are present in any training program. Child care is expensive, and women are often the primary caregivers for their children. Transportation and housing must be stable for women to participate fully in the apprenticeship readiness program and their job. If we want to lend a hand and help the most underserved people in our community, we need to help overcome the barriers to achieving success. A living wage over time will pull a family out of poverty. Skilled trades offer that opportunity — if the industry is prepared to give women employees the same opportunities as it does men.
Cindie is a co-founder and executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing. She has spent her entire adult life working toward economic justice and access to high paying careers for women.