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Apprenticeship programs in skilled trades are breaking down barriers for women and giving them the tools they need to excel in careers with excellent job security, strong pay, and long-term advancement potential.
Apprenticeships structure training and education differently than formal higher education, but as a result of working throughout your training, they can be a great opportunity to begin a career with little to no student loan debt.
Kathryn Redding, a traveling welder, said that women are sometimes treated differently because they're a minority in the trades, and that the field will benefit from more tradeswomen.
"Men talk differently to you, and I just think that if there were more women in trades, it could really change everything for us," Redding said.
What is an Apprenticeship?
Apprenticeships are work experiences for students without formal education in a trade. For instance, a woman who wants to become a plumber might start an apprenticeship, learning the most basic repairs.
Many apprenticeships last three to five years, resulting in a comprehensive education in the trades for women while still receiving a paycheck.
Apprenticeships are often available with:
- Construction workers
- HVAC technicians
What are the Benefits of Apprenticeships for Women?
Mary Vogel, executive director of Building Pathways, an organization that creates opportunities for women in the construction industry, said the most important benefits of apprenticeships for women are the careers that follow.
"Apprenticeships provide high paying careers with great benefits and a dignified retirement with low educational barriers for entry," Vogel said. "Through the apprenticeship, women can acquire the skills they need to become an experienced and skilled craftsperson and have a life-long career ahead of them."
Skilled trades jobs are here to stay, meaning women in trades careers will never ever become obsolete.
For example, diagnosing, fixing, and occasionally replacing malfunctioning plumbing fixtures requires the combination of on-site visits, wide knowledge of plumbing systems, and clever implementation that is hard to outsource or automate.
The skilled trades offer the opportunity to steadily rise through the ranks as you gain skills and prove your reputation for excellent work.
With each new tier of experience or credential, you gain access to better paid or more flexible opportunities, including the chance to train future skilled trades workers.
While many trades workers begin working for someone else, you can start your own business after gaining experience and a reputation for quality.
For tradeswomen who are interested in running the administrative or logistical side of a business, this can be a great opportunity for further variety after years of working in their chosen career.
Challenges and Obstacles for Women in the Trades
Women have very successful careers in the trades already, but there are still challenges and obstacles to achieving gender equity in the trades. Redding said that, independently, it takes strength to overcome those obstacles.
"Never get discouraged. Don't let anybody second guess or doubt yourself," Redding said. "I have felt like I don't belong, but then I remind myself that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be and I can't let anyone tell me I don't belong."
But breaking down these barriers shouldn't be on tradeswomen. Vogel said getting apprenticeships for women in trades jobs will require professional organizations and employers to actively combat incorrect perceptions.
A factor that keeps women in trades jobs to a minimum is the power of background. Women who have only ever seen men in trade jobs may unconsciously reject those careers without ever giving them careful consideration.
Redding said that if her aunt weren't a welder, she doesn't know if she'd have gotten into the trade.
“If my family had not been in construction, I don't know that I ever would have thought about it,” Redding said. “In school, it was never really introduced for a girl to learn a trade, but we can do anything.”
Because women are extremely strong and good at problem-solving, these perceptions are unfounded in the actual work, but they can be impactful as a passive form of challenge.
A more nefarious obstacle for women in trades jobs is that they are often the target of stereotyping and bias.
Marketing trade jobs to women and men equally can begin to chip away at this. Also, apprenticeships can help women prove their skills before getting their first job.
According to Vogel, women aren't told about these careers. In general, the trades aren't always as emphasized in high school, and if a teenage girl isn't seeking out this information, she may not know the options available to her. This is a place where career counselors, educators, and others with connections to trade jobs for women can help to raise awareness.
How to Introduce Middle and High School Girls to Trades Careers
In trade careers and education, gender bias and lopsided representation can affect girls' perceptions of the skilled trades years before entering the workforce. Industry professionals also agree that trade careers are marketed more towards middle and high school boys than girls.
A global Unicef report mapping gender parity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education found that in most countries, girls have lower self-confidence in their STEM abilities and less interest in STEM careers.
You want to ensure your child or student knows about their options and opportunities in every field. Here are some ways you can encourage your kid to explore the skilled trades.
Today, the trades are advancing technologically, and they’re increasing in demand due to an aging workforce. Educate yourself about the way the pandemic has increased demand for the trades. Also, find myth-busting guides on our site, including:
Around the country, many skilled trades summer camps and afterschool programs specifically serve girls. For example, the Nuts, Bolts, & Thingamajigs® Foundation hosts camps, including Girls Adventuring in Design, Engineering, and Technology (GADgET) and Girls Learning to Weld (GLoW).
You can locate one of these camps or organize an event at your school. Find more organizations in the resources section below.
You don’t have to go far to learn a lot. At home, take on a painting, tiling, or reupholstery project.
Since the pandemic, many organizations have published free at-home lesson plans and video tutorials. Here are a few to get started:
- Non-profit Girls’ Garage offers resources like Tool School on Youtube and construction challenges.
- The Automotive Women’s Alliance (AWA) Foundation hosts a STEM Kit Challenge for students. The AWA manufactures and distributes the challenge winner’s idea.
- Teachers can browse hands-on STEM lesson plans through Cooper Hewitt’s Educator Resource Center.
- Find kid-friendly activities exploring electricity, design, and construction through Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio.
Sometimes the most invigorating part of working in the trades is working on the shop floor. Trade schools and skilled trades programs at community colleges combine classroom learning with hands-on experience in real-world environments.
Students often have the chance to participate in the social aspects of campus life like shop class or automotive club. And typically, they're required to devote a semester to an internship or apprenticeship. An admission advisor can talk to you about their school's curriculum and career placement services.
In a research study in Japan, girls increased their STEM interest when lesson plans incorporated real-world problem solving. The study serves as an important reminder that kids will engage in the issues that matter most to them.
For example, if your child wants to help protect the environment, she might be interested in becoming a solar photovoltaic technician or several other trades within green careers.
The trades touch every industry. No matter what topic your kid cares about most, she can find ways to turn her passion into a job through the trades.
Resources for Women in Trades Apprenticeships
This Department of Labor bureau focuses on women's employment opportunities and has provided a variety of valuable programs since the late 1970s.
Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO)
This grant program helps apprenticeship-organizing groups recruit women, give them pre-apprenticeship training, and aid in mentorship and follow-up for women in trades jobs.
This organization supports women at all stages of working in skilled trades, from assisting companies in recruiting more women to helping with leadership development and creating ongoing meetups to help tradeswomen find community.
For Middle and High School Girls Interested in Trades
Tools and Tiaras
Through mentorship programs, this non-profit encourages girls interested in pursuing non-traditional or male-dominated career paths.
This Oregon-based non-profit serves girls ages 8-14 in camps and afterschool programs. Its programs focus on building basic skills in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, roofing, mechanics, and more.
Girls Garage offers skills camps, weekend workshops, after school programs, and distance learning videos for gender-expansive youth in middle school and high school.
Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs®
The foundation arm of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International, this organization offers scholarships and hosts camps nationwide for students to gain exposure to all things STEM.
Working Toward a Better Future for Tradeswomen
Vogel worked as a labor lawyer, representing building trades since the 1980s, and said she's seen progress in women's involvement in the trades and the stigma against them since then.
"The more women we get into this industry, the more accepted they'll be," Vogel said. "The more women there are, and the more resources provided, the less stigma and harassment they'll face."
Expanding trade jobs for women starts with greater positive perception and practical opportunity for women pursuing these careers. Apprenticeships provide a great chance to learn a skilled trade while establishing a reputation for excellence with others in your field.
Now is a great time to consider a trade — they're no longer just men's jobs. The need for high-quality construction, repair, and maintenance workers is high, and you can be part of the solution.
Meet the Experts
Mary Vogel, executive director of Building Pathways, has advocated for the building trades for four decades. In her role now, she helps connect women in Massachusetts with the tools they need to successfully complete apprenticeships and succeed in their careers.
Kathryn Redding, a traveling welder with two and a half years of experience, hopes to be a voice for women and young girls in the trades. Redding uses TikTok and Instagram to advocate for and connect with women who might be reluctant to enter the trades due to stigma or discrimination. She says that if she could do it, anyone can.
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