Women in construction could get a big boost from Biden’s infrastructure plan

Tradeswomen organizations that prepare women for jobs in construction and building trades are celebrating a new commitment from the Biden administration to increase access to and funding for pre-apprenticeship programs for women and people of color. 

The announcement arrived earlier this week, when President Biden unveiled the first of two infrastructure proposals, this one focused on goals like rebuilding bridges, fixing highways, and upgrading transit systems across the country. As part of Biden’s vision for expanding the U.S. workforce to make these plans feasible, the administration has pledged to invest $48 million in workforce development. That funding includes a special focus on creating new registered apprenticeship slots as well as support for pre-apprenticeship programs for women and people of color, to ensure they are allowed an equal share of those opportunities.

While it constitutes only a tiny fraction of the larger bill, leaders of pre-apprenticeship programs for women say this investment from the Biden administration could give them a particularly valuable boost. The funding would enable them to make their programs more robust and accessible, setting women up for success in an industry that continues to be overwhelmingly male-dominated. While the number of women working in construction reached a 20-year high between 2017 and 2018, fewer than one in 20 construction trades workers are women.

“So many women can’t get accepted to apprenticeship programs because they have no idea what they’re getting into,” says Sharon Latson, the director of marketing and communications at Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT). “Our pre-apprenticeship program prepares women to pass the tests required for them to get into apprenticeship programs. The funding we could receive to continue our work in training women and preparing them for the industry is paramount to our continuing to exist.”

Latson says more funds and support from the administration would allow CWIT to expand its programs and make them more flexible. Currently, CWIT’s pre-apprenticeship program admits about 30 women each quarter for training sessions that typically take place in the evening. Latson says the program is hoping to begin accepting more women and offering trainings during the day, to accommodate those who work at night or have children and families to care for at that time. Federal funding would also help CWIT subsidize some of the costs for women who graduate from its programs and go on to apprenticeships: Apprenticeship fees and equipment costs—for items like boots or tool belts—can be prohibitive for some women. 

In the absence of these barriers, some of CWIT’s trainings provide paths to immediate employment. Women who participate in CWIT’s 12-week welding program leave with skills that can land them well-paying jobs in fabrication and manufacturing, Latson says.

This is the other reason it’s so vital for the Biden administration to prioritize women and people of color in its infrastructure bill, advocates say. Most construction jobs pay well above the minimum wage, and most of them are union jobs that come with health insurance and other benefits. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for jobs in the construction industry was $45,820 in 2017, compared with $37,690 for all other industries. (The pay gap is especially stark when compared with the minimum-wage jobs that are disproportionately held by women.) 

Creating more opportunities for women in construction could help many of the women who lost jobs during the pandemic—and in fact, women made up the bulk of job losses—get back on their feet. 

“I’ve seen firsthand what poverty does to people and in particular women. The majority of women we serve are on food stamps, on SNAP, to support their families,” says Kelly Kupcak, the executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen. “In blue-collar [trades] jobs you just make more money, and that’s why it’s so important for women to have these opportunities from an economic stability standpoint.”

Kupcak says women who finish the pre-apprenticeship program at Oregon Tradeswomen go on to make an average starting wage of $21.81 an hour, roughly $10 more than Oregon’s minimum hourly wage.

Still, the building trades can be unfriendly to women. Sometimes it’s the case that women land apprenticeships and jobs only to face sexism, racism, and other forms of harassment from their bosses and coworkers. Or they’re offered the jobs to create the appearance of equity and inclusion, only to be denied opportunities to advance to contractor and other managerial positions. “You might get on a job, and then no one wants to teach you anything,” Latson says. “A guy is like, ‘Here’s this broom, and you can sweep.’” A woman of color recently called Kupcak for help when she showed up to work to find a noose hanging at her job site.

For this reason, Latson says she hopes to see the Biden administration find ways to ensure the women given the opportunities promised by his infrastructure plan are allowed to make the most of them. “We can keep pumping women into these apprenticeship programs, but when do they get the clipboard and make those decisions about who gets hired?” she says. “That’s the barrier.” 

The “boys’ club” mentality in the construction industry won’t disappear just because of Biden’s infrastructure plan. But Latson and Kupcak say that as more men retire from the industry and more women come in, they imagine the culture gradually shifting. And in the meantime, women want to be part of the much larger vision represented by Biden’s plan—rebuilding the country so that all Americans have access to the things they need.

“When we talk about public dollars going into public infrastructure—clean water, clean energy, building hospitals, expanding broadband access—the work is dirty and hard and physical and intense,” Kupcak says. “But all of those things make everyone’s lives better; they bring a higher quality of life to all of us. And when you talk to women in the trades they are very proud of being part of something bigger than themselves and being part of their communities.”

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