My story begins with an ending.
After working as a sales manager for a large multi-national corporation for more than 17 years, my division was eliminated in 2012. I’m employed one day with benefits and a future, and the next, I have nothing.
I struggled to find a job that would pay as well as my corporate-sales position. Without a college degree, almost no one would hire me into a comparable job. Those who would even consider it expected me to accept entry-level pay for a job I had been doing for almost 20 years.
My choices were either go to college and get a degree or find some other way to replace my corporate income. At that point, a college education, and big college debt, seemed out of reach.
Carpentry was something that had drawn me for years, so I decided that it was time to follow that dream. I had no idea where to begin. Could women even become carpenters? How would I get the training needed and find work? Would anyone hire me without experience?
Roadmap That Worked
The Chicago Women in Trades pre-apprenticeship program provided a roadmap—teaching basic jobsite skills such as tool handling, helping me get into work-ready physical shape and providing important gender-specific ergonomic training to avoid injury. The program showed me how to get my foot in the door and secure an apprenticeship. Most importantly, it introduced me to other tradeswomen so I could see myself as a carpenter and make my dreams achievable.
Skilled construction trades have given many women an alternative to poorly paid jobs. Yet women remain severely underrepresented in these high-paying jobs, making up less than 4% of U.S. craft workers in 2020, say federal statistics.
This is at a time not only when the construction workforce is aging, less mobile and coping with COVID-19 impacts, but also as industry employment needs are expanding rapidly with key markets recovering and set for major growth.
Federal infrastructure legislation now pending in Congress presents an opportunity to significantly grow the number of women in the trades—who are clearly needed to fill gaps now and in the future.
The US Senate approved the $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill but failed to include language from a proposed amendment that could transform thousands of lives by setting construction-trades workforce goals for women, an others long underrepresented.
The amendment, championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), had eleven co-sponsors, and would provide effective equity measures designed to increase diversity and inclusion in construction trades and ensure harassment-free workplaces.
The Senate bipartisan bill amendment expired, but legislators still can and must ensure that so many who are capable but underrepresented have a place on infrastructure construction teams.
I join with my sisters in Chicago Women in Trades and the Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues to urge Congress and the Biden Administration to insert, in any budget reconciliation legislation still to be approved, effective measures that increase opportunities to enter and succeed in skilled-trades construction careers. These would include
- A goal of 15% apprenticeship participation
- Required creation and maintenance of respectful workplaces (including harassment prevention training).
- Guaranteed funding for supportive services such as recruitment and career education, pre-apprenticeship training, child and dependent care, and transportation.
- Major expansion of the Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations program
- Extension of federal prevailing-wage mandates and other labor standards to all covered jobs.
Experience has shown that simply setting participation targets for hiring is not enough.
Pass A Bill That Works for Women
Women definitely can benefit from pre-apprentice programs as I did, and from added financial support for transportation and childcare. Participation targets in the amendment would more than triple the expected number of women working on infrastructure projects—making it possible for them to benefit equally from what the massive legislation will generate.
I have had some amazing, and not-so-amazing, experiences on the job as an apprentice. I definitely still feel like I have to prove myself. Some men try to help me because they don’t think I can do the job. Some remain just averse to working with women, luckily just a few.
Recently, while working on a job, I was the only team member who could not reach the ceiling. I was the only woman and. at 5’3”, the shortest person. A teammate built me a stepstool to gain the extra few inches. He was willing to work with me so I could prove my ability. It really meant a lot. I carry that stepstool to every job now.
Adding this language to still-proposed infrastructure legislation would be the same kind of step-up that women need to prove they can enter the trades and do the work needed at a high level of performance. As a result, they can secure well-paying jobs with good benefits, commit to an industry career and develop the pride that comes from showing someone a finished project, knowing that ‘”I built this.”
It also means a lot to get a boost from my union, when I heard Tom Flynn, carpenters’ union general secretary-treasurer, also urge Congress to adopt amendment provisions as “proven strategies used in the private sector.” He joins with leaders of the boilermakers,' bricklayers' and iron workers' unions, as well as 200 others representing organized labor, construction firms, corporations, gender and racial justice organizations and worker-rights groups in supporting the amendment.
There is a sign in my home that reads, “The Best Days End in Dirty Clothes.” Three years ago, I could never have imagined becoming a third-year carpenter apprentice or being proud of what that sign now represents.
Lisa Guzman is a third year apprentice in Carpenters' union, Local No. 58 in Chicago, who is active in Chicago Women in the Trades (CWIT). She also is a carpenter representative on the Tradeswomen Council and serves on the Chicago Sisterhood of Carpenters leadership committtee. Reach her or CWIT at email@example.com