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California Wants More Women In Construction Apprenticeships. But Will They Come?

Women wearing white hard hats, safety glasses, white masks and yellow sweatshirts carry wood in a yard
Students work during a July 2021 training at the WINTER (Women In Non Traditional Employment Roles) facility in East L.A.
(Brian Feinzimer
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A thread recently blew up on the Los Angeles subreddit in answer to this question: How does anyone live the American Dream in L.A. without being a multimillionaire?

Among the most popular answers — behind "Double Income No Kids" and "find a sugar daddy"— was this one: union trade career.

"No college education, no student loan debt, I have benefits and opportunity to make overtime," wrote user Deepinthefryer. "It can be sometimes dangerous and very grueling work. But after apprenticeship it can be steady and lucrative with a knowledge of what you’ll get paid after every contract."

Apprenticeship is an alternative to college that can lead to high-paying careers in the building trades and, more recently, in areas like cyber-security and health care. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to have trained 500,000 apprentices by 2029 as a way to alleviate income inequality.

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But according to a progress report released this month by the California Department of Industrial Relations, reaching that goal would require more than doubling the number of people currently in apprenticeships.

"We realized that we are going to have to do something more than just rely on the economy and growth in the economy to grow apprentices," said California Labor Secretary Natalie Palugyai.

To reach the governor's goal, the report says, the state needs to:

  • Support more apprenticeship "intermediaries" like LAUNCH in the Inland Empire, which connects apprentices and businesses that want to hire them;  
  • Build youth apprenticeship programs — the average age of a California apprentice in 2021 was 33;
  • Expand apprenticeships sponsored by the state or local governments, like the corrections department's popular licensed vocational nurse to registered nurse program;
  • Stimulate new apprenticeships in fields other than the building trades, like hospitality and child care; and
  • Help more women and nonbinary Californians get into traditional construction apprenticeships. 

(Read the full report.)

Specifically, Palugyai said, the newly passed state budget includes "innovation funding" to help apprenticeship intermediaries scale up. The budget also includes funding to pay for what's known as related supplemental instruction, the classroom portion of apprenticeships, at a rate equal to funding the state gives community colleges for other credit courses.

The report notes that there's limited room for growth in construction apprenticeships and instead focuses on growing apprenticeships in other, less traditional areas.

Will The Pandemic Further Reduce Women In Construction?

While many apprenticeships promise a debt-free pathway into a career, few can match the building trades for starting salary and lifetime payout. And yet the state report is short on details on how to get more women into construction. "This is stuff we have to figure out in partnership with our unions and with a lot of community organizations that are working with women," Palugyai said.

Women made up just 4% of California apprentices in the construction trades in 2021, according to the report, and just 7.5% of all active apprentices.

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To increase participation, the report recommends revisiting the recommendations of a committee convened in the early aughts to figure out how to get more women into construction apprenticeships. In fact, women's participation has declined since then. Some labor experts largely blame California's affirmative action ban, Proposition 209.

California has very few programs that specifically target women for construction apprenticeships. One of them is Women in Non Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER), a free pre-apprenticeship training program for low-income women in L.A. But the pandemic has been tough on WINTER.

The organization had to cancel several of its 10-week training cohorts during the lockdown. It also lost its training venue in East L.A. last year when the owner decided to sell the building, and it took a few months to find a new place.

Now, Executive Director Alexandra Torres Galancid said her organization is having trouble finding enough trainees to fill a cohort. (It's also having trouble filling staff positions. "I got a new grant and we had three new positions. It took us like six months to find the people," she said.)

"I don't have enough women to place [in jobs]," she said. "That's the reason we don't have more women [in construction]."

Torres Galancid thinks that's partly because of the growing popularity of working from home, or not working at all. She also noted the specific ways the pandemic has affected women, including disrupting child care and housing.

"We're having a hard time signing up people because they're not stable," she said.

Torres Galancid said around 80% of the women who have gone through the WINTER program in recent years didn't have a stable home, often living in their cars or couch-surfing.

"People have been displaced because they could not pay the rent. So if you're working as a waitress, and the restaurant's closed for six months, how do you pay your rent?" she asked.

Labor Secretary Palugyai said there may be a need to support women economically who want to transition into the building trades.

"The opportunity costs for a woman who might be working in retail, even if it's a low paying job, you're getting paid, and to give that job up to go to a six-week or four-week training program, how do you pay your bills?" she said.

WINTER partners its trainees with case managers to help get through problems like losing their housing or child care, and case managers continue to check in on women from the program throughout their years-long apprenticeship.

"Providing support after you train them, I think, is more important than the training that we do," Torres Galancid said. "Because women can get to the unions by themselves, it is the support that we provide that makes them more competitive and they stay in those jobs."

Another reason there aren't more women electricians, Torres Galancid said: Many just don't consider a career in the building trades. She thinks that could be remedied, in part, by more and better marketing.

"Everywhere you look, every advertisement and marketing campaign puts pictures of men," Torres Galancid said. "And then when you walk in your neighborhood, and you see, 'Oh they're building a metro right there,' and what do you see? All men. So we have to really invest in marketing for women."

WINTER was held up in the state's recent report on apprenticeships as a model for increasing the participation of women and nonbinary people in construction apprenticeships. That's great, said Torres Galancid, but "the accolades do not train women," funding does.

In fact, the state is dedicating $15 million in the upcoming budget year toward a "Women in Construction Priority Program" to support women and nonbinary Californians in construction.

Galancid sees the increasing focus on getting women into apprenticeships as progress. When Torres Galancid was hired to lead WINTER 21 years ago, "it was the best kept secret of a career that women could work in the trades. So I have seen a lot of improvement."

Have a question about access to higher education?
Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.

Updated July 22, 2022 at 10:19 AM PDT
Added detail about funding for the "Women in Construction Priority Program."