Why Aren’t More Women Working in High-Paying Trades Careers?

With a shortage of workers in the construction trades, there’s a solution staring the industry in the face: fewer than 5% of electricians, plumbers and bricklayers are women.

Michele Robinson knows not every woman wants or has what it takes to be an electrician. Between lifting boiler room machinery while wearing oversized personal protection equipment and the near dawn clock-in hours, it’s a tough job. Add in passive-aggressive sexism on some work sites, and it’s a particularly tough job for women.

Journeyman electrician Brittley Richards; Photo by Andrew Feller

But she figures there should be far more than 75 of them out of roughly 2,500 electricians working in Milwaukee. That’s the number of women registered with the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 494, mirroring women’s 3% total of electrical workers nationwide in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there’s not much change coming; this year just 10 women were among the 272 electrical apprentices in the four-county Milwaukee region of the trade’s primary training program. That’s almost 4%, a modest but not needle-moving improvement.

“Women are often isolated,” says Robinson, a journeyman electrician, part-time teacher at the Milwaukee Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee and board member of EmpowHER, a local group dedicated to supporting women in the trade professions. “You can go a decade without seeing another woman on the job site.”

The gender disparity problem goes well beyond the electrical profession into most of the building and construction trades – a labor force facing a severe worker shortage. Women make up no more than 4% of plumbers, brickmasons, tile setters and carpenters nationwide.

“There was a time where, for every female [electrician] that came in, one would go out,” says Henry Hurt, a master electrician and owner of Hurt Electric in Wauwatosa since 1996. “Now, for every two that come in, you may only lose one. The retention part is the scary part.”

 

 

Despite the hardships, there are plenty of rewards: a highly transferable professional skill with tons of upward mobility, an average hourly wage above $25, a union that supports development and employment security, and, for some, an opportunity to see your work showcased in the city’s highest-profile buildings.

That’s the case for Brittley Richards, who’s seven years into her career – five as an apprentice, and two as a journeyman – and has worked on Fiserv Forum, the Northwestern Mutual Tower and the new Komatsu headquarters with Hurt Electric. Going into high school, she faced a choice: chasing her childhood fantasy and studying dance performance at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, or pursuing a more stable yet rugged career in construction.

Swayed by advice from her grandfather, she enrolled in Bradley Tech High School, graduating in 2008. “He told me, if I was smart, I should be an electrician,” she says. “You can only dance for so long.”

Richards, who as a biracial woman is a double minority in the field, cut her teeth with Hurt Electric on large-scale jobs like the Northwestern Mutual skyscraper. She also proved that she physically belonged, carrying pipes that weighed 30 to 40 pounds each while maintaining her balance on the top of a vertical lift high above the floor.

Richards recalled not only piecing together her electrical layouts with minimal flaws – just as any other proficient electrician would – but also the male colleague who needed assurance from another male electrician that it was indeed this young woman who had installed the rack of pipes so masterfully.

“It was a ‘shut your mouth’ moment for him,” says Hurt, who learned of the incident after the fact. “You can’t get people to always like you, but you can get them to respect you. Brittley is one who is tough. She will not let you roll over her. She is smart, she learned quickly, and she can get it done.”

Efforts are underway to give more women like Richards a chance in the trades, and many of them spearheaded by the labor unions.

The Milwaukee Electrical JATC has developed two- to eight-week training programs based on specific employers’ requests and/or labor market needs, working to recruit women with community-based

organizations including WRTP Big Step, Northcott Neighborhood House and The Social Development Commission. The leads that come from these training programs and open houses are usually followed up by a visit with a union representative, who encourages the prospect to get registered and work as a pre-apprentice construction wireman.

IBEW 494 visits local high schools to recruit, showcasing women like Robinson and Richards to appeal to girls. The union also brings interested students to the union shop to promote the industry.

“The international office in D.C has had a national plan [to address gender disparity] for quite a while,” says Dean Warsh, business manager for IBEW 494. “Our job sites should reflect the communities we live in.”

And what started as a support group and safe space for discussion for IBEW members across North America has grown into the Women’s Committee, a professional organization with three goals: growing women’s careers so they can attain leadership positions, nurturing mentorship between younger and more experienced female electricians, and encouraging members to speak up and speak out against unjust or unequal situations. Since 2015, the committee has held annual conferences for women and allies that invite industry workers, leaders and legends to address the issues that shape women’s mobility within the electrical workforce. The Women’s Committee also addresses issues relating to personal protective gear and prejudice on job sites.

“Equality is not buying size 8 gloves for everyone,” says Robinson, who serves as secretary for the Women’s Committee. “Equality is making the extra effort so that I have size 7’s, which are very, very small and no one else can wear. But you get them for me because I need to wear gloves.”

As a board member of EmpowHER, Robinson’s next goal is to partner with local electrical contractors on a training program targeting the retention of female workers. She hopes to have a part in creating the curriculum, and most importantly in discovering up-and-coming women in the field.

Individual firms, too, are making the work environment and culture more inclusive not only to women, but families. Hurt Electric has a flexible start time from 6-8 a.m., which allows primary caregivers to prepare their children for babysitters or school.

“[The industry] would be able to retain a ton more people if they could simply adjust the hours,” says Jean Hurt-Taylor, a journeyman electrician and daughter of Henry Hurt. “In 15 to 20 years, there should at least be 30% women in this field – if things change.”

With such minuscule numbers in the field now, every new female recruit counts.

“The Brittleys of the world, they help turn that around, once you give them a chance to show you what they can do,” says Hurt.

Know Your Tradesperson

There are three licensed levels of electricians, which correspond to most professionals in the building trades:

Apprentice: An entry-level worker who can perform electrical wiring activities while learning on the job. Applicants must pass a math, reading and skills tests as well as an interview, and up to 60 are admitted in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties per year. Apprentices are paid for work and some classroom hours as well, with a fixed salary that increases at set levels throughout the five-year apprenticeship. Other trades require three to five years in apprenticeship. The electrical field also has a pre-apprenticeship program called construction wireman (CW) involving basic wiring, mounting and blueprint reading.

Journeyman: An electrician proficient in duties such as wiring, distribution, fire alarms, temperature control and data cable connections. Status requires completion of an apprenticeship or other professional requirements.

Master: Requires 12 months experience as a licensed journeyman electrician, a total of five years (10,000 hours) on the job or an electrical engineering degree from an accredited college. Applicants must pass an exam.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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