What to Expect Being LGBTQ in the Skilled Trades
October is LGBT History Month, and while many LGBTQ individuals are out and proud at work, history prevails. There are still industries, like the skilled trades, that have room for progress.
According to industry professionals, there are both benefits and drawbacks to being queer in a skilled trade job, but improvement comes in numbers. As more LGBTQ individuals get involved in trade careers, the pros begin to outweigh the cons.
One benefit of joining the skilled trades is the pay. Research shows that LGBTQ individuals earn less than their straight, cis peers, and they take on average $16,000 more in student loans than the general population.
And while there are financial aid and scholarship options for LGBTQ students, the wage gap still exists. The skilled trade industry has sky-high demand, equally high salaries, and no need for student debt.
Morgan Mentzer founded Reckoning Trade Project to build a community and support system for fellow queer trade workers. Mentzer worked as an auto-mechanic before becoming a lawyer and founding Lavender Rights Project to defend LGBTQ folks at work.
"I really see the trades as getting high pay, benefits, and a union that will support you," Mentzer said. "So, it's really a form of economic justice, but the problem is that the culture is so misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic that many folks in the trades don't last because they can't stand the abuse."
Read on to learn more about what to expect being LGBTQ in the trades.
Benefits of being an LGBTQ trades worker
One major benefit of being in the skilled trades is your ability to earn a high salary early on in your career. Something that can't be said for LGBTQ workers in all occupations. Some high-paying careers that don't require degrees include:
Low education requirements
One major struggle for LGBTQ individuals is the fact that they take on more student loan debt than their straight and cisgender peers. One benefit of trade careers is that the educational requirements are generally very low.
Some trades don't have any educational requirements, but the most schooling you'll need is generally an associate degree. Usually, you'll go to vocational school to get certified in your trade. When you're deciding between trade school and college, keep in mind that you'll pay at least four times less for a trade school education.
Job security and opportunities
The trades are in dire straits in terms of their workforces — they need new hires to continue to function. Companies are even attending conferences like FABTECH to collaborate on how to recruit more workers.
One consensus: Companies need to appeal more to minority groups, like women, in the trades.
But this is also an opportunity for LGBTQ individuals to get a job relatively easily and keep it.
Drawbacks of being LGBTQ in the skilled trades
Homophobia and transphobia, despite progress, are still very real in the trades. But Mentzer maintains that if more queer individuals get into the trades, the systems that perpetuate homophobia and transphobia will change.
"Queer and trans folks absolutely deserve to be in the trades and can succeed except for the systems that create the problems," Mentzer said. "It isn't anything about who they are, it's based on the systems creating the problems, and we can change those systems. Being in the trades changes the trades."
What's being done to combat homophobia in the trades?
Mentzer says that she has seen progress in the trades LGBTQ individuals, and that's due in part to an increased focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
Employers are becoming more conscious of inequities
Some employers in the skilled trades are becoming more aware of the need for consequences for discrimination against their LGBTQ employees. Mentzer says this is a good start, but employers can truly begin to change their culture by hiring queer leadership.
"There is a focus for sure on DEI work, which is great in the trades, but I really think we need more representation of diversity in the management of companies and unions," Mentzer said. "There's a lack of representation in leadership so that this misogynistic, homophobic culture can continue to thrive."
It's now illegal to fire an employee for being LGBTQ
The Supreme Court ruled in July that firing an individual solely for being LGBTQ is against the law. Previously, gay and transgender workers in over half of the country could be fired without recourse based on their gender identity or sexual orientation (or both).
This law indicates progress for LGBTQ employees in the skilled trades especially, as the constant fear of losing their jobs is now gone. And if your employer fires you for being LGBTQ, they're breaking federal law.
"It still is a very difficult industry. The trades across the board, people face everything from slight harassment and ridicule to very severe harassment and violence. I think that LGBTQ folks absolutely need to be in the trades — we just need to build support systems."
That's why Mentzer founded Reckoning Trade Project and Lavender Rights Project — to help protect those who've had their rights violated.
How to find LGBTQ-friendly skilled trades employers
"I would ask about if there are a lot of complaints of harassment or what they do if someone complains about harassment," Mentzer said. "If a company’s defensive about it, that can be really reflective of how they deal with complaints."
Mentzer suggested that you ask these questions to get a read on the company’s culture:
- What does your harassment complaint process look like?
- Do you have any DEI training for workers?
- Do you have policies on non-discrimination?
Mentzer also suggests you talk to and shadow someone who already works at the company you're interested in. She said they can give you insights into the day-to-day working environment and who you'll be working alongside.
Mentzer says it’s up to you to decide whether you want to be out at work. If you do happen to choose an employer that isn’t as LGBTQ-friendly as it could be, she suggests you determine whether you’re safe in your workplace.
"It is absolutely up to the individual to figure out what space they’re in and if they feel safe enough to come out because the threat of physical and emotional violence is very real in the trades," Mentzer said.
Resources for LGBTQ trades workers
Reckoning Trade ProjectReckoning Trade Project, founded in 2018, is a community of support and resources for LGBTQ trades workers and those considering the trades. Reckoning Trade Project offers workplace training, a member portal for trades workers, and resources regarding workers' rights.
Lavender Rights ProjectLavender Rights Project is a legal service for trans and queer individuals with many practice areas. One that you can utilize as an LGBTQ trade worker is their employment discrimination practice area.
Pride at WorkPride at Work is a labor union coalition that advocates for LGBTQ union members. As a trades worker, you might have the opportunity to join a union that will protect your rights. Pride at Work seeks equality for LGBTQ individuals in unions and at work.
Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Employment for WomenANEW, founded in 1980, is the oldest pre-apprenticeship program in the nation, focused on equity in the construction industry. ANEW offers training, employment navigation, and support services to marginalized communities, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.
Meet the Expert
Morgan wears many hats in both white and blue-collar worlds. She is a co-founder and Lead Attorney at Lavender Rights Project, an LGBTQ+ legal services firm where she first began the Reckoning Trade Project as an internal program. Before law school, Morgan worked as an auto-mechanic and recently opened Camellia's Automotive Repair, which is co-owned and operated with her partner MJ. When she's not buried in one of her three jobs, she is singing, playing the drums, and rebuilding old cars.
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