Photo by Greg Aragon for ENR
Union-sponsored gathering of women in the building trades focused on how industry can increase pre-apprentices and boost long-term careers for women. The Los Angeles event, held on May 1-3, attracted a record turnout.

Pushing to become a more visible, vocal and valued segment of the construction workforce, more than 1,000 women craftworkers—a record number—convened in Los Angeles this month for a union- sponsored conference to share best practices in everything from pre-apprenticeships to coping with a hostile workplace to long-term career creation.

"The goal of this conference is to increase the numbers of women coming into the building trades and to enable them to stay in the trades by giving them the skills to succeed and by supporting women's leadership on the job and in their unions," said California Building & Construction Trades Council President Robbie Hunter.

Debra Chaplan, the council's director of special programs and conference coordinator, said the focus on pre-apprenticeships was a new component of the gathering, which has grown substantially since it began five years ago. "Workshops specifically for pre-apprentices this year allow them to learn hands-on from women who are experts in different trades," Chaplan said, adding that Swinerton Builders "made a sizable contribution" to sponsor 100 pre-apprentices' attendance. "It's all about recruitment, retention and leadership development," she said. "Women are good hands, they want to do this, and they want to earn money."

Kelly Jenkins-Pultz, a regional U.S. Labor Dept. official, said the agency is focused on creating fair and equal wages for women through apprenticeships that can help them move into high-growth areas of construction. Jill Houser, a regional director of the agency's Office of Apprenticeship, said apprenticeships will double under a new federal effort. They are "the gold standard of training that's delivered by any federal system,"she said.

While project labor agreements are coming under fire from the industry's non-union wing and conservative politicians, officials of unions and some California transportation agencies said they are a key local hiring tool for women. The pacts "can help encourage more women on big projects," said Tamera Guilinger, a member of carpenters' union Local 839 in Chicago. "Most of the time, I've been the only woman out there on a project, and now I'm seeing more women, so PLAs are working."

Melina Harris, a union carpenter and president of Seattle-based Sisters in the Building Trades, said the event is a key support tool. "This work is not easy, but when 1,000 women come together, it shores them up for another year," she told ENR. "They support each other and stay in touch on social media." Harris noted that there is little industry guidance on issues such as whether welding fumes can harm pregnant workers' babies in utero.

"If we can get enough women together on any one issue, their voices can be heard," she said. "Before this, they were invisible." The conference will move, in 2016, to Chicago for the first time.