What to Know About Being a Woman in the Trades
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Today, more women are entering the skilled trades. The Institute for Women's Policy Research found that the construction field added 18% more tradeswomen between 2017 and 2018.
Sheila LaMothe, executive director of the Chemical Coaters Association International Finishing Education Foundation, has seen a slow but notable increase in tradeswomen. She helps organize the Women in Finishing FORUM, a professional development event for women at all levels of industrial finishing, from coaters to executives. Event sign-ups have increased 40% from 2019.
To LaMothe, the boost in attendance signifies some progress in gender diversity — and a need for more events supporting women in the trades. Deloitte predicts more than 2 million jobs in manufacturing will go unfilled by 2030.
"The reality is we have zero chance of overcoming the workforce shortage in manufacturing without recruiting underrepresented groups," LaMothe said. "The industry really needs women if we have any chance of addressing unfilled positions currently and into the future."
If you're considering becoming a tradeswoman, keep reading for pro tips and resources.
What Are Trade Careers?
Not everyone wants or needs to get a bachelor's degree to fulfill a pursuing career. Trades careers — also called vocational careers — are high-paying jobs without four-year degrees. Instead, they require completing a career-focused training program at a community college or trade school or becoming an apprentice.
At the same time, working in the trades can help you break into in-demand industries if you decide to pursue an associate, bachelor's, or advanced degree down the road.
Trades or vocational careers span from construction to healthcare to IT. According to the BLS, popular trades for women include surgical technologists, medical assistants, dental assistants, and nursing assistants. However, other great trades for women include manufacturing, construction, and STEM, where women are underrepresented.
Why You Should Consider Being a Woman in the Trades
By becoming a tradeswoman, you can pursue a fulfilling career in a desperately in-demand area. Here's more of what the trades can offer:
Careers in the trades offer many opportunities to grow in your career.
"We have members who started on the finishing floor and are now general managers, engineers, and CEOs," LaMothe said.
Here are some ways to advance your career in the trades:
- If you work for a company, take advantage of training opportunities to learn new technology like robotics or computer numerical control (CNC) machining.
- If you are an independent contractor, take relevant exams in your state to gain journey-level or master status, which could qualify you for higher-paying jobs.
- Earn an associate degree in your field. Some employers may offer tuition assistance.
In an Angi survey of construction tradespersons, more than 10% said they were somewhat or very satisfied with their careers. (Only 1 in 20 trades pros said they were unsatisfied.)
Jane Anders is a professional tile setter. She switched over to the trades from an office job.
"I was fed up with the rat race of the usual 9-5 job and the thankless office environment," Anders said. "Being at the same desk, staring at the same wall for over six years, took a toll on my mental health. Furthermore, the lack of advancement gave me no incentive of pursuing my career further."
Now, Anders appreciates the variety, flexibility, and career advancement that her trade allows for.
Anders puts her knack for interior design to use in her tiling business by guiding clients on their tile and design choices. She believes the trades can cater to a range of skill sets and interests.
"Methodical ladies with an eye for detail would make amazing painters," Anders said. "Those that love digging in their gardens can be landscapers and get paid for doing what they love."
If you want to find a career that you actually enjoy doing, take the Lantern Career Interests Quiz. It uses your likes, dislikes, and professional personality traits to suggest potential careers.
There are many high-paying trade school jobs you can land with a certificate or an apprenticeship.
Also, while you’re probably familiar with the gender pay gap, you might not know that some trades pay women more equitably than other occupations.
According to Tradeswomen Inc., women generally earn just 81 cents for every dollar a man makes. But construction tradeswomen earn 94 cents to the dollar. Working for a union, gets you paid dollar-for-dollar what your male counterparts earn.
Private businesses and the government recognize the need for more gender diversity in building, manufacturing, and STEM, so they’ve prioritized scholarship opportunities for women pursuing these fields.
The U.S. government funds women’s career and technical education (CTE) through the Perkins Act. This grant goes toward scholarships and other necessary supplies for underrepresented groups in a given CTE field.
When you’re looking at vocational programs, ask the admissions counselor if you qualify for financial assistance. Search online for private scholarships, and check out the resources for women in trades at the end of this article.
Challenges of Being a Woman in the Trades
Despite the recent growth of women in skilled trades, women still make up just 3.4% of the workforce.
LaMothe says that the biggest challenge women face is that they're in the minority. But she added, "In no way should a woman allow that to intimidate them, not even for a second. Manufacturers want and need them to join the workforce."
Anders' experience has surpassed her expectations — for the better.
"I did have misgivings and dreaded the all-male worksites, but after I worked on a few, I learned it was all in my head," she said. "I have found the workers (mainly men) treat you like an equal worker … I have had assumptions about my strength being made, but that was it."
How to Become a Tradeswoman
If you're ready to challenge yourself and the status quo, here are ways to start a career in the trades:
Many people get into the trades because they know someone with that occupation. If that sounds like you, see if you can spend time with that person at their job. Shadowing will give you a chance to feel out the environments where you'll be working.
Some women start training in high school — or earlier, thanks to programs like Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs' STEM camps for girls. If you've graduated already, you can start an apprenticeship.
Apprenticeships combine classroom learning with on-the-job experience. And you can get paid for your work while you train.
Apprenticeships are especially common among:
Organizations like Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) fund apprenticeships for women. In addition, you can find apprenticeships through Apprenticeship.gov and your local trade union.
Consider the following when comparing trade school versus college:
- Attend a trade school or technical college. Trade schools may offer training programs for one or a few careers, specifically in the skilled trades. They vary in tuition and fees and may offer need-based scholarships.
- Go to community college. Community colleges offer both shorter certificates and longer degrees. They're non-profit, and if you live in the district, you can pay discounted tuition.
Trade associations exist in every trade to advance training in their respective fields.
Search online for a trade association in your chosen field. Their staff can connect you with hiring companies. Trade associations also host professional development events, and many offer scholarships to hopeful students.
You need to know what licenses or certifications are required to work in your state or city. For example:
- In many states — and several cities — plumbers must pass a licensure exam to work.
- You don't need certification as a welder, but it can help you get a job.
- HVAC, electrical, and home-building contractors also need licensure depending on the state.
You can find a list of state regulatory agencies via the National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies. Make sure to check your city or county guidelines, too.
Resources for Women in Trades
The National Center for Women's Equity in Apprenticeship
Visit the Center's website for information about pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, or search its national resource map for an organization supporting women in the trades near you.
Tradeswomen Inc.'s career board allows you to search for jobs and apprenticeships by your skill level and trade of choice.
Women in Manufacturing
This organization supports women in manufacturing from entry to executive positions. Go to their website to locate your state's chapter, connect to networking opportunities, and find industry events.
Meet the Experts
Jane Anders has been a professional tile setter for over 10 years. She co-writes and edits a tiling tutorial website, Tilers Place, alongside her husband. Tilers Place aims to help homeowners and DIY-ers learn essential tiling skills.
Sheila LaMothe is the executive director for the Chemical Coaters Association International (CCAI) Finishing Education Foundation, vice president of strategic initiatives for CCAI, and program director of Women in Finishing. She also served as a chairperson of Women in Manufacturing® (WiM) and the WiM Education Foundation. She continues to serve on its board of directors.
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