When people think of working women in U.S. society, what comes to mind? No doubt, many are aware of the growing presence of professional women such as physicians, attorneys, managers, and CEOs. But what about women who have determined that higher education is not the right choice for them, or is simply cost prohibitive? How can they be expected to support themselves, let alone a family, with low-paying jobs in areas such as food service? Do women ever envision themselves as working in a skilled trades industry where, once they learn a trade, they could be earning a good salary—certainly enough to support themselves and a family?
Or are young women taught to believe that those jobs are an option only for their male counterparts?
Many researchers refer to work in the skilled trades as “middle-skill jobs” with “family-sustaining wages.” Middle-skill jobs typically do not require a bachelor’s degree but do require education and training in various skills.
According to Ariane Hegewisch and Heidi Hartmann in a report titled Occupational Segregation and the Gender Wage Gap: A Job Half Done, published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in January 2014, women represent 83 percent of workers in middle-skill, female-dominated occupations that pay less than $30,000 per year. The majority of anticipated job openings, however, are in middle-skill, male-dominated occupations with median annual earnings of at least $35,000 and opportunities for regular increases. In male-dominated occupations in fields such as transportation, women currently make up less than 10 percent of the workforce.
Data collected by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Civil Rights also show a dearth of women participating in federally assisted contracts in construction. Each year, FHWA requires prime contractors on federally assisted contracts to submit “Federal-aid Highway Construction Summary of Employment Data,” known as the FHWA 1391/1392 report (contractors submit a 1391 report to the State departments of transportation, which then compile these into a 1392 report submitted to FHWA). This report is an annual snapshot of the demographics of each prime contractor’s construction workforce as of the last payroll period preceding the end of July. FHWA uses the report to identify patterns and trends of employment in the highway construction industry, and to determine the adequacy and impact of contractors’ equal employment opportunity efforts and on-the-job training requirements.
In 2017, during the relevant July timeframe, the 1392 data showed 13,511 active construction projects with a total workforce of 227,609 journey-level men and women. (Men and women are considered “journeymen,” or reach “journey-level” status, when they have successfully completed an official apprenticeship and are qualified to work in a skilled trade.) In 2016, the 1392 data showed 11,852 active construction projects with a total workforce of 160,831. Data for both 2016 and 2017 showed that within the several job categories identified during the reporting periods, males led in all work areas. The combined data showed that women comprised 6.39 percent of the workforce. Although women were present in all categories, they were represented primarily in clerical categories, equipment operators, and unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. When apprentices and trainees were included in the data, the percentage of women participants rose to 6.72 percent.
Wearing a hardhat and a safety vest, Hannah Carmical poses onsite
at the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge project in New York.
Photo courtesy of Mark MacDonald, Tappan Zee Constructors, LLC
The U.S. Department of Labor projects that employment in highway, street, and bridge construction will increase by 23 percent through 2022, with 67,500 jobs added across the United States. These numbers are above and beyond the job openings created by retiring workers. According to a 2013 article in Forbes Magazine, “America’s Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom as Most-In-Demand Group of Workers Age,” almost one in five skilled construction workers were 55 years or older in 2012, and more than half were 45 years and older. Employers are finding it difficult to fill vacancies in these middle-skill occupations. Women are a key labor pool that can help this sector of the economy meet its hiring needs.
Section 22(a) of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, codified under 23 USC 140 (a) and (b), provides the authority for FHWA to administer an on-the-job training program. The purpose of the program is to move women, minorities, and disadvantaged individuals into journey-level positions, in order to ensure that a competent workforce is available to meet the hiring needs in transportation construction, and to address the historical underrepresentation of these groups in skilled crafts in highway construction. FHWA’s on-the-job training program requires State departments of transportation to set training goals that prime contractors on federally assisted contracts must meet. State DOTs require contractors to use good faith efforts to hire women and minorities. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance also has goals for minorities and women workers on federally assisted contracts (the goal for women is 6.9 percent nationwide). Together, the FHWA and Department of Labor programs make it necessary for prime contractors to make sufficient efforts to recruit women and minorities as trainees and apprentices.
“Although these target middle-skill occupations currently employ only a small minority of women, there is little to suggest that there are not many women who could successfully train for these occupations,” according to Pathways to Equity, a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The report notes that many women already work in occupations that have similar skills to the occupations employers are seeking to fill, but are paid less. “Recruiting more women to fill skills gaps in growing middle-skill occupations is a viable, if not a necessary, strategy for employers, while for women such occupations present pathways to higher earnings and economic security.”
Challenges and Barriers
Although increasing the number of women in transportation occupations seems an obvious solution to overcoming current and anticipated workforce shortages, as well as providing women with family-sustaining income, it’s not that simple. Women face a number of barriers to success and career advancement in the construction industry, both internal and external. The barriers include fewer opportunities than men have to learn how to use tools while growing up; lack of information about careers in the skilled trades; less access to social networks that facilitate successful applications to apprenticeship programs; and harassment and discrimination in hiring, assignments, and on-the-job training during apprenticeships.
Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says, “Gender exclusion in certain industries is not rational.” She stresses that both women and employers should focus on skill sets and not traditional gender roles. “Many women work in female-dominated occupations that are very similar to male-dominated occupations in terms of the amount of instruction needed to learn the job; the use of deductive and inductive reasoning; the need to be able to visualize physical arrangements; required command of the English language; the extent to which the occupation satisfies a worker’s ‘enterprising’ occupational interest; the extent to which the work is paced by the speed of equipment; the frequency of exposure to physical hazards; and the Roxanne Neilson, currently an outreach coordinator for a Los Angeles-based firm and president and owner of a projects management firm in New York, believes that women who doubt they have the skills necessary to succeed in apprenticeship programs should consider what skills they already possess. For example, women who have fine-motor and abstract visualization skills demonstrated in activities such as knitting and sewing from complex patterns might find these skills translate well into the area of low-voltage communication wiring such as fiber optics cabling and testing. Neilson notes, “These girls can navigate smartphone applications, so there should be no question that they can learn how to configure controls on digital testing equipment.”
Women Who Are Paving the Way
The women quoted in this article all have current or past experience working in skilled construction trades, and all had the same message for women, “You have to really want it.”
Neilson benefitted from FHWA’s on-the-job training and the workforce requirements from the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance. How she found herself working in heavy highway construction is an unusual story. She graduated with a liberal arts degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, then moved to Honolulu, HI, in the 1980s, where she worked at a YWCA as a program director managing an infant and toddler care program. However, even with her college education, Neilson was barely making ends meet.
The YWCA was spearheading programs for low-income mothers of children in the daycare program. During the outreach, Neilson noted that local trade unions were looking for women to join their apprenticeship programs to help contractors achieve their Federal workforce goals. Neilson soon learned that a union apprentice earns more than she made as a program director.
Julie Savitt, president of a disadvantaged business enterprise in
Chicago, says, “Nothing should stop a woman from being a trucker.” Photo courtesy of AMS Elite Solutions, Inc
Going outside her comfort zone, she attended pre-apprenticeship training courses. The courses introduced her to the expectations for workers in construction and strengthened her skills with hand tools. Although she lacked any previous technical training, after finishing the pre-apprenticeship program, Neilson was hired as a union apprentice. By the end of the apprenticeship, she had received enough training hours to become a certified welder and the first female African-American locally union-trained journeyman in the State of Hawaii.
“You’ve got to persevere; you have to really want to do it, and you must keep your eyes on the long-term benefits of sticking it out no matter what,” Neilson says. She tells a story about working at a job at Pearl Harbor when a superintendent asked her to go into a dumpster and separate the garbage from the lumber. At that moment, she told herself, “He’s trying to humiliate me to make me quit; but I’m not a quitter.” To keep going every day, she focused on the money and long-term benefits of belonging to a union.
Hannah Carmical is the manager of human resources and administration for a company that is part of the Tappan Zee Constructors consortium, which is the design builder of the new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge just north of New York City. Among other things, Carmical manages union labor relations, hiring and firing, and compliance with equal employment opportunity requirements. Carmical often hears from new engineering graduates wondering why they spent so much on a college education when an apprentice can start earning a combined salary and benefit package of $50 to $60 per hour (with built-in increases) as soon as they finish their apprenticeship. Carmical often reminds them that the tradeoff, of course, is unless they work full-time for a company, they often have time on the bench in between jobs.
Marla Nance took this photo of two women conducting an inspection
of a bulletin board at a jobsite in Florida using an electronic tablet device.
Photo courtesy of Marla Nance
Carmical believes that women with long-term success in construction “want to make it happen.” She recognizes a shift toward the acceptance of women in construction, although she notices differences in projects from city to city. Carmical’s job involves recruiting women workers to meet New York State’s 6.9 percent goal for female hires. So far, women make up approximately 2.8 percent of the bridge project’s workforce.
Women-Owned Small Businesses
What about women-owned small businesses in the transportation industry? Responding to successful grassroots lobbying, Congress added women as a presumed disadvantaged class to the USDOT’s disadvantaged business enterprise (DBE) program in 1987. In addition to women, the disadvantaged groups include African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Subcontinent-Asian Americans.
Joann Payne, president of Women First, a national legislative committee that advocates for women-owned small businesses, led the grassroots effort to include women in the DBE program as a presumed disadvantaged class. She explains that even after the legislation passed through Congress in 1987, certain State DOTs refused to include women into their DBE programs. State officials apparently were convinced that not only were women unqualified, but including women would lead to the establishment of “front” companies, that is, companies owned by women on paper only while actually controlled by their non-minority husbands or other males.
Payne testified at various hearings in which she provided data on women-owned construction companies to show that they were, in fact, legitimate, qualified companies. It was only after the publication of a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office in 2001, however, that women began to receive contracting opportunities as DBEs. Although the road to inclusion was not easy, women-owned firms now have the greatest percentage of participation on federally assisted contracts among all the DBE program’s disadvantaged classes. Despite this success story, women-owned small businesses continue to face challenges and barriers in the male-dominated construction industry.
Over the years, Julie Savitt, who is president and owner of a DBE business in Chicago, has been frequently called “honey” or “sweetie” by her male counterparts. When she enters a jobsite, often she is asked whether she is looking for her husband. She believes that as a woman, she has had to haggle twice as hard to be paid half as much, and if a prime contractor hires her firm, it is as if the company is doing her a favor.
Savitt began her career as an assistant principal in a small day school. Then, at age 40, she started a company with a single truck that she leased to other companies. She is self-taught in the nuances of the construction industry and has had mentors help her learn business concepts such as cost perspective versus profit perspective.
Today, her company has 15 employees and owns 13 trucks. Now when she hires drivers, she requires approximately 10 years of trucking experience, and at least 5 years in construction. She kept at it and finally found a niche area of trucking in which the competition is not quite as fierce. She believes that she is successful because her company is expert at what it does.
What made her continue? “You have to love it,” she says. What Savitt truly loves about her job is that it provides the opportunity to break down barriers for women and to be a mentor to help minorities and women grow their businesses. Her goal is to make the industry culture more appealing in order to attract a new generation of women who value education and working hard but working smart. Her daughter is interested in following in her mother’s footsteps; although this succession plan excites Savitt, it also concerns her. “I told my daughter to take a year off, and if she’s still interested in trucking when she comes back, I’m okay with it,” she says.
One last example: Marla Nance owns a small certified DBE business that provides equal employment opportunity and DBE compliance oversight services for State DOTs and local public agencies, primarily in Florida. She started her career as a Florida DOT employee working for 2 years in the co-op program in the Right of Way Unit. She then left FDOT to work with Florida’s Auditor General conducting financial audits.
Having grown up in a family with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, Nance then opened her own business. Her firm has been certified as a DBE for 13 years and averages 22 employees. As a small business owner, she had to learn how to market her company. Nance advises young women who are considering careers in the transportation industry or who aspire to open their own business to pursue some type of higher degree such as a B.A. and consider obtaining a specialized license or certification that will distinguish them. From there, she, like Savitt and Neilson, advises women to get “really good” at what you do and your reputation will grow. Nance is a licensed certified public accountant in Florida and has a B.A. and M.A. in accounting, and she believes these credentials gave her credibility from the start. She, like Savitt and Neilson, also advises finding a niche market. Her background in government auditing led her to her current business of providing equal employment opportunity compliance and auditing certified payrolls.
Changing the Current Dynamic
How does the transportation industry convince young women that working in male-dominated, middle-skill jobs is a viable option? According to the Hegewisch and Hartmann report, “College degrees do not come more cheaply in female-dominated fields, and the gender wage gap together with the penalty for working in a female-dominated occupation leave women graduating in these fields with many fewer resources and lower future earnings potential than women who choose nontraditional fields. Therefore, improved information about the differences in prospective earnings in different fields at different educational levels would be especially useful to women.” Hegewisch and Hartman define “nontraditional fields” as occupations or fields of work where individuals of one gender comprise less than 25 percent of the workforce. For more information on women in nontraditional careers, see www.womenandgoodjobs.org.
Françoise Jacobsohn is the cofounder of the National Task Force on
Tradeswomen’s Issues. Photo courtesy of Françoise Jacobsohn
Although education and training are key, how else can women continue to break down barriers and increase the numbers who find and retain middle-skill, male-dominated jobs? Françoise Jacobsohn, cofounder and former cochair of the National Task Force on Tradeswomen’s Issues and a former Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, notes that across the country, more women are available to work on federally assisted contracts but are often frustrated at their inability to get hired, get equitable work assignments, and stay working. The OpEd Project is a nonprofit that trains under-represented experts how to write op-eds and get them published.
Research indicates that outreach is critical and must start as early as elementary school to spark interest and expose young women to the increasing opportunities in transportation. Barriers to women acquiring jobs in male-dominated fields with family-sustaining wages are not insurmountable and are not a reflection on women’s capacity to succeed in those jobs.
Hegewisch says that the transportation community needs to change the conversation. Many are of the belief that women cannot be successful in a construction career because of the long hours. Hegewisch disagrees with that argument, saying “Nurses often work ’round the clock, and no one says, ‘Oh, that’s no job for women!’”
Efforts are ongoing nationwide to attract more women to transportation, as well as to fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Michelle Harris, of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, is manager of the office’s Women and Girls in Transportation Initiative (WITI). The initiative’s mission is to increase the participation of women in the transportation industry through internships, strategic partnerships, and education.
WITI is based on a USDOT initiative, the Pilot Entrepreneurial Training and Technical Assistance Women and Girls Program, which began in 2009 as a partnership with Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. USDOT created the program to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM-focused fields and to help women in those fields achieve their goals. The program provided internships and mentoring for young women, as well as entrepreneurial training for female owners of small businesses in the region.
As a result of the success of the Spelman initiative, USDOT expanded the internship program by creating WITI. This program provides transportation internships for young women across the Nation. Each summer, WITI places 26 women ages 19 and 20 in paid internships in different areas of the country. Recently, WITI participated in a pilot program with Florida Memorial University in which nine interns received college credits as part of their internships. Harris says that one intern now works as a traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration, and two others are working at private airports. Other graduates of the WITI program work in private engineering firms, as community planners, and as a manager at Ford Motor Company. For more information, visit the WITI website at www.transportation.gov/osdbu/women-and-girls.
In addition to USDOT’s Women and Girls in Transportation Initiative,
FHWA participated in the Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day
in 2016, a fun day of scientific discovery to encourage children to consider
careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The USDOT’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization provides funding and oversight for 13 Small Business Transportation Resource Centers across the country. The centers provide free technical and financial assistance for small businesses and DBEs to better prepare them to compete for work on federally assisted contracts. The centers’ services include business analyses, market research and procurement assistance, general management and technical assistance, and business counseling and coaching. For information about locations of the centers, visit www.transportation.gov/osdbu/SBTRCs. The USDOT office also administers a short-term lending program and a bonding education program for small businesses.
A NEW Approach
Carmical works with Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), a nonprofit in New York City that administers a 7- to 8-week women-only pre-apprenticeship program, offered during the day and on evenings and Saturdays. The program’s purpose is to prepare women for long-term success in skilled trade careers and to teach them what is expected of them on construction jobsites. The program also teaches women the math and reading skills necessary for success in the construction industry and evaluates individuals to determine their unique strengths and talents.
The program then matches graduates with specific opportunities in construction and transportation industries. Erik Antokal, NEW’s workforce development officer, says that careers in the construction trades are “not presented as options” for women by educational institutions, or the media.
NEW offers access to apprenticeships and training. The training involves exercises such as practicing lifting and carrying 63-pound (29-kilogram) buckets and other construction materials. Participants graduate from the program with OSHA 10 certification, which refers to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 10-hour training—a requirement for union apprenticeships. Of 400 women per year trained by NEW, approximately 300 will graduate from the program. Of those 300, 150 are placed in union apprenticeship programs within 1 year.
Neilson wholeheartedly concurs that support is necessary to retain women in the construction industry. She notes that many women in apprenticeship programs quit, usually because they are not prepared either technically or emotionally to survive the culture of the industry. Neilson admits that being a woman on the jobsite can sometimes be humiliating if women enter the industry with no skills or support system, unlike some of their male counterparts. She says that young men often get a pass because they are known as “Robert’s son” or “Tom’s nephew.”
Neilson adds that when new female apprentices began work, she and the other women on the job would quickly approach and warn them not to use their sexuality to be accepted on the jobsite. She explains that sometimes flirtation may be the natural fallback response when a woman feels insecure in her lack of experience with tools and equipment. Neilson stresses that by so doing, however, women take a dangerous step. Although they may experience an immediate positive response, they are less likely to be taken seriously or given meaningful work in the long run. Instead, she advises women to perfect a certain set of skills, as this knowledge and talent will be a valuable asset in the workforce now and in the future.
To help those women, Neilson recognizes that they need support, both emotional and technical. She and other women apprentices created a tradeswomen’s leadership and supportive services program called “Na Wahine Hana,” which is Hawaiian for “Women Working Together.” The support group offers after-hours skills training, such as opportunities for hands-on work with tools while building homes for Habitat for Humanity. But primarily the group provides mentorship and support to women without families or friends in the industry to pave the way. Currently, Neilson is coaching the developer of a program in Los Angeles based on the same model. This pilot program seeks to provide resources and referrals for women in the trades to “focus on the skills they need to hone now, for the future they envision and must tailor for themselves.”
A Hopeful Future
The transportation industry is ripe to provide a groundswell of well-paying job opportunities. Women who have an interest in applying their problem-solving skills and earning family-sustaining wages may need to think outside traditional female roles. Introducing young women to the possibility of pursuing nontraditional job options is the first step. The next step is for each woman to identify her individual strengths and determine how they can translate into skills needed in the transportation trades.
The transportation sector offers women the opportunity to apply a
Overcoming the challenge of working in a traditionally male-dominated industry should not be a deterrent. Women who are breaking into these industries want to help those who follow in their footsteps with a hunger to prove themselves.
There are laws that require employers to recruit women. There are organizations that provide women and small business owners with opportunities for internships and training. There are people, like the ground-breaking women above, who thrive on supporting other women who enter the industry. There are female business owners who are eager to support young women interested in starting their own transportation-related businesses. And, most of all, there are opportunities to work in the transportation industry.
To fill those positions, more women must become ready, willing, and able to receive training, get work, and excel in the transportation industry.