Trade jobs are increasingly being pursued by more and more women as an equitable and reliable career option, but why?
Aisha Brundidge walked through the doors of her previous workplace. It had been a year since she left, and she was excited to stop in for a visit to see her old coworkers. When she entered the building she was met with the shocked faces of her old colleagues. In the year that she was gone, she had traded her office attire of skirts and heels for steel-toe construction boots and working gear. After working 15 years in administrative work and healthcare, Brundidge decided it was time to shift into a career better suited for her: trade.
While her coworkers were surprised, Brundidge is not alone in her decision to change career paths. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women have been joining the skilled trades in increasing numbers for years now. There are now more women in trade than ever before.
HISTORY AND ECONOMIC FREEDOM
Skilled trades have always been a reliable way to pull people out of impoverishment. They require no college degree and provide fair wages and union benefits. However, women have historically been left out of tradework. Traditional gender roles or hiring discrimination has meant that women, who have important buying power in the economy, have been shut off from a reliable way to access a tool of poverty reduction.
Mari Pangestu, manager of The World Bank, explains it in a joint report by the World Bank Group and the World Trade Organization.
“Trade can expand women’s role in the economy and decrease disparities with men by giving women more and better employment opportunities. Seizing these opportunities will be even more important in a post-COVID-19 world,” said Pangetsu in the report.
The seizing of these opportunities is exactly what organizations like Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) seek to achieve through their work. Established in 1981, this nonprofit started providing women with the resources they needed to familiarize themselves with the trades. In 2023, the organization provides women with apprenticeship and support. This ranges from providing women with the tools and gear for their trade, to providing free apprenticeships and support programs and advocacy work to support federal policies that open up trade opportunities for women.
The hands-on experience allows women to confidently approach a field. From mental health services and support when unemployed, to computers to work on resumes or meetings, CWIT provides tradeswomen in Chicago the opportunity to enter a daunting space. Brundidge, a mother of two who helps support her family, says she feels she is indebted to CWIT.
“I’m super thankful to CWIT,” Brundidge said. “It’s beyond a support group, but it’s just a bunch of women who understand that if you’re willing to put in the work, they have your back. Yeah. No matter what.”
Benefits of Trade
Trade provides women with a multitude of benefits.
“Empowering women with equity pay, empowers women, period,” said Renee Jones, the program director for CWIT. After going to college and working in social services, Jones made the switch to become a journeyman electrician. This means that she completed half her training in becoming a master electrician. She was able to make more money than ever in trade, and now works to open up pathways for other women to understand all the career options available to them. She believes that the dignity and income that trades provide women of every background makes trade a beneficial career choice.
“This is one of the ways that I can make a choice with a high school diploma, to earn a salary that’s going to afford me to live better. So I think that’s attractive for most mothers and women of color,” Jones said.
These benefits are felt worldwide. Louissa Azzopardi is an Australian tradeswoman and lifecoach. After 12 years of mechanical and welding experience, she helps other tradespeople with mental health and leadership guidance. From exploring different avenues of trade to providing life coaching to others, Azzopardi feels like she is able to live a life of independence.
“It’s given me so much freedom in my career path,” Azzopardi said.
She has also competed and won in Wordskills Competition in places like Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. Azzopardi was the first woman in the competition’s history to win first place in the heavy machinery vehicle category. She has dedicated every aspect of her life to trade, best represented by her mural tattoo. In the front is Rosie the Riveter. Behind a flexing Rosie, a young girl raises her hand behind a desk, representing the fight for women’s education. On the other side, a woman dances, representing women’s freedom.
Freedom is a very large benefit. But Brundidge feels the benefits the most at home, when she is able to see the impact her trade has on the people she loves the most.
“Providing for your family, it is empowering. It’s very empowering. And knowing that you have health care, and you have benefits that you can just provide for your family,” Brundidge said.
How Trade Benefits from Women
The diversity of the workplace in trade has also positively impacted trade work. Azzopardi explained how different sites have different needs. Every different type of trade has many different variables and people to manage.
“So having that different view and angle of looking at a problem, whether it’s from a woman or from someone who has grown up in another country in a different circumstance, like having that different view on a problem really adds value to the workplace,” Azzopardi said.
Not only have the diverse opinions helped trade jobs, but Jones believes that women have more to prove on the site. She feels that women have more to lose, and that makes them dependable and hard workers.
“We need these jobs, so we’re dedicated to doing those jobs. We’re dedicated to being there. So it’s a constant. If you hire women, these are women that really want to work,” Jones said.
Is There a Trade Worker Shortage?
According to the Staffing Industry Analysis, 77% of trades workers see the worsening labor shortage as a serious problem. However, people like Jones are skeptical of the idea behind a trade shortage.
“I will question that,” Jones said. “ If you’re not actively looking to fill positions, with women and people of color, then yeah, you’re gonna say there’s a shortage. It’s a shortage of men. That’s what they’re referring to.”
Jones explained how there are women at CWIT waiting for jobs, and that employers need to diversify their outreach. Many women trade workers feel like the increase of outreach to women for trades work could help the shortage. Azzopardi feels like the solution to the shortage is simple.
“You’re literally excluding half the population from joining,” Azzopardi said.
Advocate for Awareness
Brundidge loved HGTV as a kid. She watched as houses were bought and built through the laying of insulation to the hanging of light fixtures. Despite her inherent interest to use her hands and gain the skills, she was never encouraged to pursue trade. This is a common experience for most women. They are never pointed towards the trades, and aren’t aware that it is a reliable and dependable career path.
“Exposure,” said Brundidge. She explained that women are hesitant to enter a field in which men are at the forefront. To enter a new space like that, Brundidge feels women need to see that jobs sites are becoming increasingly diverse. Both Jones and Brundidge pursued college degrees and careers before they realized the opportunities trade offered for them.
“As long as we educate them, to challenge yourself if you have fears, and to make sure you look at every aspect of the construction industry and see where you fit in,” Jones said.
Header Illustration by Madeline Smith