COVID’s impact on women in skilled trades

Did you know that only three percent of employees in the skilled trades are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor? Females are significantly underrepresented in the skill trades at a time when many companies are looking for help, a significant number of trade workers are nearing retirement, and the pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on women. According to Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), more than half of skilled trade workers are over the age of 45, which is 10 percent above the average for all other jobs. Over the past year, about 2.4 million women left the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The primary cause was COVID’s impact on the service, retail, travel, and tourism industries, which employ a majority of women. Additionally, some women left the workforce out of necessity to care for children who may be out of daycare or doing remote learning or to care for their elderly family members.

This is an opportune time to expand the labor market in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, and other areas by encouraging more young girls and women to consider these careers. According to the New York State Department of Labor, skilled trades jobs are projected to grow by 17 percent through 2024. Skilled trade vacancies have been the hardest to fill in the U.S. for several years now. Women are considered “non-traditional” workers in many of the skilled trades industries, so we need to promote opportunities to girls at a younger age, highlight the work of women as role models and mentors, and reduce the barriers for entry, including implicit bias. We need to make sure that young girls and women know that they have opportunities in a wide range of technical fields, from aviation to welding.

Thanks to Questar III’s leadership, the work of our staff and business partners, and the support of our students, families, and school districts, we have expanded our career and technical education (CTE) programming and enrollment for high school juniors and seniors. In fact, over a five-year period, our enrollment has increased 30 percent. Right now, about 40 percent of the 800 students who attend Questar III’s CTE, New Visions, and Career Studies programs are female. Female students in half of our programs make up the majority of our students. This includes traditionally strong programs like cosmetology and nursing assistant, but we also see strong numbers in our New Visions programs and balanced gender representation in criminal justice and culinary arts. Currently, only a handful of female students attend programs such as auto, aviation, construction, heavy equipment, HVAC and renewable energy, information technology, and welding. It is important for young girls to understand that careers in the trades are booming and present an alternative to traditional pathways such as college.

Women can be competitive with their male counterparts in pay and benefits. Most trades do not require a college degree, eliminating the need for upwards of six figures of debt. Moreover, some trades will pay their workers to learn on the job, either through apprenticeship programs or employer-paid training. However, according to U.S Department of Labor data, women made up just 11.6 percent of those who completed apprenticeship programs last year. A month before the COVID-19 shutdowns, a record 70 percent of U.S. businesses reported a talent shortage, according to a Manpower survey. The pandemic compounded an already growing problem.

While many companies are dealing with a seismic labor shift called “The Great Resignation,” job satisfaction in the skilled home trades remains high, according to Angi’s second annual Skilled Trades in America Report. Yet, 77 percent of those surveyed view the labor shortage as a worsening problem. Questar III will continue to promote these classroom and career opportunities to all students, including female and other non-traditional workers. With the trades deficit reaching an all-time high and many Baby Boomers about to retire, there has never been a better time for women to consider a career in the trades. This is not only a win-win for women and employers, but also for the large community. After all, studies show that when the women’s labor force participation rises, so does the economy and gross domestic product (GDP).

Dr. Gladys I. Cruz is the district superintendent of Questar III, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) serving school districts in Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene counties.

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