FAIRFAX, Va. – To those outside the industry, sheet metal work may seem like a man’s world. Internally, journeywomen are thriving, and although the percentage of female sheet metal apprentices is at 4.2 percent, that’s double what it was only two years ago, according to the International Training Institute, the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, welding and air conditioning industry.
Nationally, the construction industry in general is made up of 3 percent women, according to Chicago Women in Trades.
Partnerships and affiliations with women’s trade groups such as Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. in Portland, Washington; Chicago (Illinois) Women in Trades; Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York and Building Pathways in Boston, Massachusetts, have helped training coordinators introduce women to a trade many love but fewer know much about.
Connie Ashbrook, founder and executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, has worked with Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 16 in Portland since 1996. Together, they’ve increased the female apprenticeship percentage to 9 percent.
“If it wasn’t for Oregon Tradeswomen, I would be at 2 to 3 percent females,” said Kevin Roth, training coordinator for Local No.16. “It is the key to our success.”
Through the organization, women are introduced to many building trades in the area through a free, seven-week pre-apprenticeship class held four times a year. Participants are educated on the skills it takes to apply for a building trades apprenticeship, including the physicality of being an “industrial athlete,” Ashbrook said.
“It gives them a head start. Doing the physical fitness training helps them understand they’ll be sore for a while, but it’s OK. They’ll be fine and get over it,” she added. “They have the confidence to know it’ll improve. If it’s too heavy for a woman, it’s likely too heavy for a man, too.”
Opportunities for women are what sheet metal training coordinators across the country and women’s trade organizations are trying to spotlight.
This fall, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded a contract to Chicago Women in Trades’ National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment as part of a $20.4-million initiative to expand apprenticeship opportunities in the United States. The grant emphasizes expanding apprenticeship opportunities for women, people of color and other underrepresented populations. The Center will work with 10 organizations, which includes nearly every staffed tradeswomen’s organization in the country.
The project is led by Chicago Women in Trades and Oregon Tradeswomen and includes partnerships such as with the ITI to help attract and retain female apprentices in more than 150 training centers across the country.
The partnership not only helps organizations introduce women to the trades, it helps build strong apprenticeship classes across the nation.
For more information on National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment, visit http://womensequitycenter.org/. Additional information on women in the trades can be found at www.chicagowomenintrades2.org or www.tradeswomen.net.