Pictured: 2018 Plumbing graduate Kelsi Hatch and instructor Jeff Jackson
By: Sara Loretta (Gebhardt)
In the summer of 2017, I met a woman applying for our Plumbing & Pipefitting class named Lillishia Stingley. Her vibrancy and drive for a better career, shined through her interview as she discussed her family experience in Plumbing and her young children’s needs. I remember we accepted her on the spot for the October program, and over the course of those eight weeks Lillishia became not only a leader within her cohort but the face of the Hard Hatted Women campaign I would officially launch over Giving Tuesday.
According to the Department of Labor, women represent approximately seven percent of the skilled trades in the United States. While that number is slowly growing, awareness towards women’s safety on job sites, the benefits they bring to crews such as critical thinking and attention to detail, and more importantly that women are working in the trades, have skyrocketed. Just recently a New York construction company rolled out the first ever inclusive job site signs to encourage women entering the trades. In the NY Post article, a Brooklyn local responds to the women-friendly initiative by saying she “didn’t realize women were doing that type of work”, a statement both surprising and motivating to continue pushing the narrative for a population underrepresented like Women in Construction.
While it’s not abnormal to only see one or two women (if that) on a single job site, respect for their chosen career path is not a secret. Second year electrical apprentice Susan Ellis belongs to the Austin IBEW 520 Union and is proud to work alongside her male counterparts. “I was hired at Big State Electric following my program at Skillpoint. While being a woman in construction means you have to have tough skin, the guys around me have my back, they understand I can’t always carry the larger loads, but I still make a point to push farther to create a path for women in the future. I’ve only received positive feedback from my coworkers and [it confirms] that joining this trade was the right decision.”
Like Susan, over 50 women have enrolled in either Electrical, Plumbing, HVAC or Basic Construction through Skillpoint Alliance, eager to learn the necessary skills that will unlock opportunities in a male dominated area of the American workforce. Over the past four years that women have been turning to Skillpoint for training, we have seen an increase in graduates hired within the industry they chose, and their pursuance of continuing education. As of 2018, 17% of graduates are enrolled in an apprenticeship program in Central Texas, and 63% of the graduates reported working as first year apprentices, a record high compared to years prior.
Why is all of this data, these stories important? Much like in the 1980s, when women were entering the workforce in record numbers, the construction industry is seeing a drastic change in appreciation for blue collar workers largely due to the shift in conversation regarding college attendance. The push for college degrees and STEM focused careers within the millennial generation overshadowed the benefits from earn & learn apprenticeship programs in the early 2000s, making it nearly impossible to celebrate individuals choosing vocations over dorm rooms. For many however, joining a union or open shop environment individuals began earning an average of $15,000 more annually than their counterparts without accruing unwarranted educational debt. This benefit alone would impact the United States workforce in recent years, but in states like Texas who has the largest amount of open construction jobs in the nation with 617,000 positions available through 2021, attainability has begun to influence individuals to take the leap.
Historically the construction industry was sought out by minorities, non-citizens and those with criminal convictions. While day labor still remains largely fulfilled by these groups, the trades are fulfilling a desire for stability that those with criminal records can not achieve elsewhere. With many contractor companies on the Second Chance Hiring list, Skillpoint graduate Ashley Washington was optimistic about finding employment to support her and her children. “I had several interviews in the past that I was turned down from for being a female and having a background, which kept me discouraged for over 10 years until I heard about [Skillpoint’s Electrical program].”
Women who have come through Skillpoint’s doors like Ashley have all told me a similar story of overcoming obstacles, fighting for equality and celebrating their success come graduation time. Their experiences are inspiring and unforgettable and deserve a spotlight to share, which is why I launched the Hard Hatted Women campaign. The social media campaign started as a simple hashtag on Giving Tuesday (an international day of giving) to raise money for our construction program, but has since kick-started conversation among community partners like KLRU-PBS who produced a Decibel special that included women within the skilled trades workforce.
As we celebrate one year of running the Hard Hatted Women campaign, I aim to push farther and continue to help open doors for other women in my community. More importantly teaching others around our Hard Hatted Women about working in a shared environment.