Where Are All The Women Electricians, Plumbers, Carpenters?
On Cesar Chavez Avenue, in East Los Angeles, six women are doing a morning workout in a yard. They wear jeans, long sleeve shirts and work boots as they do squats and curl 30-pound cinder blocks.
"Ok, here we go!" the instructor yells, beginning to count reps.
They’re pushing through the discomfort with one goal in mind: to join the 2% of construction workers in California who are women.
The workout is part of a training program sponsored by Women In Non Traditional Employment Roles, or WINTER, which gets women ready for apprenticeships to become carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled tradespeople. These are some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs available, and ones that generally require an apprenticeship rather than a college degree.
Some plumbers in Los Angeles, for example, finish their apprenticeship making nearly $49 dollars an hour, according to Ben Garcia, apprenticeship readiness coordinator for the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building & Construction Trades Council.
It’s a good time to become an apprentice, with state and federal leaders setting ambitious goals to boost their numbers, and a national infrastructure bill that could create thousands of new construction jobs in Southern California. But women traditionally have been left out, which is why targeted pre-apprenticeship programs like WINTER exist.
‘Always Been A Tinkerer’
The WINTER program is free, and recruits women from low-income and underrepresented communities. The women in the most recent cohort range from 24 to 52 years old. They include a photographer whose work dried up during the pandemic, a host at an Outback Steakhouse, and a mother of two who has worked in cannabis labs.
Diana Lantan, 31, currently works as a server at a bar to pay the bills for her and her 11-year-old daughter. Lantan has worked a variety of jobs, many of them office-bound, but says she likes to be moving, and she's always been a tinkerer.
"For my birthdays, and especially for, like, Christmas, when I have my list of what I want, I'm like 'tools,'" she said.
Lantan said she's leaning toward an apprenticeship in carpentry. "It feels like this is me," she said of her new pathway, "this is where I'm supposed to be."
While there may be many other women drawn to this type of work — and to its good pay and union benefits — few find their way to training. In California, women currently make up just 3% of construction apprentices.
"I do think there's not enough women who know about this work," said Meg Vasey, a retired electrician who now runs the training and advocacy organization Tradeswomen Inc.
But that's just part of the problem.
Once Upon A Time, Toward A More Gender-Balanced Workforce
When Vasey joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1981, she says she was one of just eight women out of about 1,000 men in Local 302, in Martinez, California.
"They insisted on calling me Brother Vasey because it was the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, so there were no sisters," Vasey said.
Still, Vasey joined the IBEW at a time when it seemed possible, even likely, that many more women would follow. On the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination in recruitment, hiring and other employment matters, and requiring them to take affirmative action to diversify their payrolls.
Twelve years later, the National Women's Law Center sued the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to enforce the law, and got it to set goals for women's participation: 6.9% of work hours on federal contractors' job sites.
"I would've not gotten an interview … if the employers hadn't been directed by the federal government to show some efforts to diversify their workforce," Vasey said. She also got help navigating the long and complicated application process from a women's organization funded under the new directive.
Still, once on the job, some of her male colleagues were not welcoming. "I was told all the time that I was taking a man's job and that I had no right to be there." (Her comeback: If she could get paid a living wage to sit at home, she would.)
The work environment was ultra-masculine. "Every job site had pornography all over it," Vasey said. "When I woke up in the morning and walked into my job site and opened up the gang box where all the tools were, there would be big Hustler displays."
These experiences happened decades ago. But recent accounts from women working in construction suggest they still face a harsh, sometimes abusive environment. (Black men also face discrimination and racism in the construction industry.)
I was told all the time that I was taking a man's job and that I had no right to be there.
In a recent survey of apprentices in Oregon, more than 70% of white women and close to 80% of women of color said they heard negative comments or jokes about women on the job site; more than 60% of women felt they were discriminated against because of their gender; more than 40% of women said they received unwanted sexual attention or comments.
Still, with the national goals for women's participation in construction, and a government that seemed serious about enforcing equal opportunity in employment, Vasey and others hoped the number of women in building trades would rise quickly. But the modest, now decades-old goals have never been met.
The (Broken) Pipeline For Women
Eric Rood, Chief of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards at the California Department of Industrial Relations, thinks the culture of the building industry is a major reason for the low number of women in construction apprenticeships.
"You're dealing with a culture that has not always been favorable to really nurturing women," he said.
Contractors have little incentive, or mandate, to change that, he and Vasey said. That's in large part because of Proposition 209, the affirmative action ban that California voters put in place in 1996 (and then declined to reverse in 2020). The initiative eliminated programs and policies designed to increase recruiting, training, hiring and promotion of women and people of color, including in public contracts, such as for construction.
The implementation of Proposition 209 corresponds with a decline in women's participation in the building trades, but also in other, historically male-dominated, blue-collar professions, including oil and gas workers and mechanics.
"If we're serious about making positive changes in the safety of women and nonbinary people on skilled apprenticeship worksites, and if we're serious about increasing that participation … we need, I think, a stronger level of enforcement when it comes to equal employment opportunity provisions, and more regular audits of sites where problematic experiences occur," Prebil said.
As it stands, getting into a skilled trade can be somewhat of a family secret — for women and men. "The joke I've heard is that it's the F.B.I.," Prebil said, "friends, brothers and in-laws. Those are the people who tend to get hired for apprenticeships."
Even when women do get hired, they can find it hard to advance when there are few supervisors, trainers and mentors who look like them, Prebil said. "You do much better in your education if there are people who look like you who are teaching you."
Garcia, the apprenticeship readiness coordinator for the Los Angeles/Orange County Building & Construction Trades Council, said that, at least locally, the construction industry has made strides in increasing the number of women in leadership positions. (In fact, nationally, women hold a higher percentage of supervisor positions in construction than in lower-ranking skilled trades.
Garcia thinks the bigger problem is getting women to consider the building trades in the first place. "I think it's awareness," he said. "Maybe, historically, it has a lot to do with how we were raised.
"We were taught that boys play with construction toys and girls play with Barbie dolls. And obviously that's changed. I think that five years from now, 10 years from now, those numbers are going to increase. But it's been slow in coming."
Garcia also noted the decline in classes that teach skilled trades in junior high and high school. "I was fortunate enough to be able to take shop classes in high school, so I knew about the opportunities in the trades," he said. "Nowadays, young people just don't have those avenues."
Pre-Apprenticeship: A Pathway For Women
For those who don't have friends, brothers or in-laws in the skilled trades, pre-apprenticeship programs can provide an alternative avenue. Vasey said: "It is an extremely valuable tool for diversity and opportunities for low-income men and women … who don't know about this, how to do it, how you would actually get in, and who need those jobs desperately."
The federal government has recognized their value in increasing diversity in high-wage industries such as construction.
In the WINTER program, one of just a few of its kind nationwide, the training is free. Trainees also earn certifications in CPR, workplace safety and handling hazardous materials. They learn life skills, such as how to manage finances and nail a job interview. And they get case management, including benefits such as child care referrals, for up to five years after they leave the program.
This kind of support has been credited with a significant increase in women construction apprentices in Oregon.
WINTER trainee Jannel Herrera, 33, is a project manager in telecommunications and has two kids, 6 and 12 years old. After being laid off twice in the last four years, she hopes a union job in construction will be more stable. "I don't want to have to worry how am I going to help my kids," she said.
The trainees get straight talk about the downsides of the construction industry, as well as the upsides: about the harassment they may face, the crappy jobs they're likely to get at first, the unpredictability of their hours, and the heavy toll that the work can take on one's body.
Herrera, who used to work as a car mechanic, says she's not worried about rude men or uncomfortable work. "I know you have to be tough, especially mentally. Guys will get to you," she said. "The only way to shut them up is doing it and doing it right and showing them, 'I don't need you,' like, 'I can do this just as good as you and I can last out here longer.'"
'The Money Is Where The Men Are'
As part of the Build Back Better plan, President Joe Biden wants to create one to two million new apprenticeship slots, and strengthen the pipeline into apprenticeships for women and people of color.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also has an ambitious goal of reaching 500,000 apprenticeships by 2029. Rood said there were a little over 90,000 state apprenticeships as of April.
To make Newsom's long goal, the state is pushing to expand apprenticeships to sectors such as health care, hospitality and information technology, which traditionally haven't relied on apprenticeships to bring in new workers.
But many of the jobs attached to these new apprenticeships don't pay as well as construction trades, and Vasey worries that any expansion of women in apprenticeships will be in these lower-paying jobs.
“The money is where the men are," she said.
Still, Vasey said she's more hopeful than she has been in a long time. For one thing, she said, more women hold positions of power where they might demand that contractors show greater effort to diversify their workforce.
Also, the construction workforce, like the U.S. workforce overall, is aging. The proposed federal infrastructure bill could create hundreds of thousands of construction jobs, but the nation currently doesn't have enough workers to fill them.
Vasey doesn't see how the industry can survive without recruiting workers from the other, non-male half of the population.
In California, part of the revenue collected under Senate Bill 1 from 2017, the gas tax, is to be used for pre-apprenticeship programs. And regulations stipulate that these programs must have a formal recruitment and retention plan to increase women in the building and construction trades.
Despite Vasey's frustration with the seemingly unbreakable male-domination of the building trades, she is quick to stress how grateful she is to the union brothers who taught her a craft. "I was given the tools to make a career, I have a pension, I had health care for my family, I was able to buy my house because of my career with the electricians," she said. "In this other sense, I owe everything I have to IBEW Local 302."