Studies show that when women’s labor force participation rises, so does the economy and the GDP. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes in the databook Women in the Labor Force that women may represent more than half of all workers within several industries.
Despite this, women are substantially underrepresented in other industries. A lack of representation of women occurs in industries such as construction, manufacturing, utilities, other industrial types of employment such as agriculture and mining, or services such as repair and maintenance, automotive repair, and commercial and industrial machinery repair. Women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has been a complicated narrative, especially in skilled trades.
Women in skilled trades are in demand as an untapped resource for skilled workers in trade jobs, as there is a predicted shortage of the labor force and an anticipated growth in job opportunities. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational employment projection expects employment to grow by 8.4 million jobs. Trade jobs can often be rewarding in terms of compensation, lifestyle, and job satisfaction. There are many opportunities, pathways, and resources available to women looking to enter skilled trades, though there may be some challenges that women may need to be aware of to overcome—all of which will be detailed in this resource guide.
What Are the Skilled Trades?
Skilled trades play an active and important role in the daily lives of people and society as a whole. Without skilled trades, we wouldn’t have electrical wiring and access to electricity in homes and offices, nor would we have plumbing, or the ability to repair automobiles. The expertise of skilled tradespeople is vital to construction, automotive, and service trades, all of which are vital to sustaining everyday lives, as well as continuing growth and development.
A skilled tradesperson is someone who has the specialized knowledge to work a particular skilled trade. Skilled labor is differentiated from unskilled labor, which typically defines a person with a high school diploma or less, by the specialized knowledge gained from on-the-job training and experience, or a formal vocational or technical school education. A skilled tradesperson does not usually have to pursue or hold higher education such as a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Construction trades are typically associated with producing, assembling, maintaining, or building infrastructure. There are a variety of construction trades, though they all tend to include hands-on work and performance. Skilled positions for construction trades may include, but are not limited to:
- Concrete Workers
- Heavy Equipment Operators
- Insulation Installers
- Mechanical—HVAC, and Appliance Workers
- Steel Workers
Skilled automotive trades are associated with cars, vehicles, and transportation. Skilled positions in the automotive trades may include, but are not limited to:
- Automotive glass installers and technicians
- Automotive refinishing technicians
- Automotive service technicians and mechanics
- Brake and transmission technicians
- Bus, truck, and diesel mechanics
- Diagnostic technicians
- Engine or machine assembler
- Motor vehicle body repairer
- Motorcycle mechanic
- Mechanical engineers and technicians
- Mechanical repairers
- Power equipment mechanics
- Service technicians
Manufacturing trades are typically related to the production, processing, preparation, or fabrication of raw materials into commodities and goods. Skilled tradespeople in manufacturing trades may include, but are not limited to:
- Agricultural food producers
- Assemblers and fabricators
- Dental laboratory technicians
- Dye makers
- Food preparation or processors
- Jewelers and metalsmiths
- Medical appliance technicians
- Metal fabricators
- Painting and coating workers
- Plastic machine workers
- Power plant operators
- Quality controllers
- Tailors and sewers
- Water and wastewater treatment workers
Skilled service trades are typically more focused on providing services to customers rather than the manufacturing or production of goods. Skilled tradespeople in service trades may include but are not limited to:
- Aides and assistants
- Child or youth workers
- Developmental service workers
- Educational assistants
- Horticultural technicians
- Occupational therapy assistants
The Global Skilled Trades Shortage
In a large-scale, multi-country analysis, there is projected to be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people, resulting in a loss of $8.5 trillion dollars in annual revenue by 2030. The Society for Human Resource Management discusses the global skills shortage, making note that among HR professionals polled, 75% reported having difficulty recruiting skilled candidates. Trade skills were the highest among the top three reportedly missing technical skills. The Construction Association found that 70% of contractors are having a hard time finding qualified craft workers amid the nationally growing construction demand.
The shortage of trade skills is a complex issue that stems from no single cause. There are multiple reasons that may factor in the shortage of skilled tradespeople, including but not limited to:
- Schools and curriculums cutting vocational classes
- A push for high school students to attend universities
- A lack of funding for Tech-Prep programs or grants for vocational or technical students
- The current workforce aging into retirement
- Deficits in employer or company-provided training programs
Labor Shortage Statistics
The databook previously mentioned by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the Labor Force, discusses how women are largely underrepresented in many skilled labor positions. Consider the percentages of women in the following industries:
- Agriculture: 25%
- Automotive repair and maintenance: 9.7%
- Automotive parts accessories and tire stores: 19.3%
- Cement manufacturing: 11.5%
- Construction: 9.9%
- Commercial and service industry machinery manufacturing: 28.7%
- Electronic and precision equipment repair and maintenance: 21.6%
- Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution: 22.3%
- Foundries: 18.2%
- Iron and steel mills and steel product manufacturing: 11.8%
- Labor union: 40.8%
- Logging: 5.9%
- Manufacturing: 29.2%
- Metal forgings and stamping: 18.1%
- Metalworking machinery manufacturing: 14.7%
- Mining: 13.9%
- Motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment manufacturing: 25%
- Paint, coat, and adhesive manufacturing: 18.2%
- Personal and household goods repair and maintenance: 30.2%
- Repair and maintenance: 12.5%
- Sewage treatment facilities: 17.5%
- Structural metals manufacturing: 14.6%
- Wood products manufacturing: 16.5%
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects increased opportunities for careers in construction, estimating faster than average job growth in most of the following areas.
Specialty Trade Contractors:
- Sheet metal workers
- Electrical assistants
- Tile and marble setters
Construction and Buildings:
- Carpenter assistants
- Construction laborers
- Construction managers
- Cost estimators
- Cement masons and concrete finishers
- Painters, construction, and maintenance
- Structural iron and steel workers
- Drywall and ceiling tile installers
Heavy Construction and Civil Engineers:
- Operating engineers and other equipment operators
- Heavy tractor-trailer truck drivers
- Electrical power-line installers and repairers
- Paving surfacing and tamping equipment operators
- Telecommunications line installers and repairers
- Mobile heavy equipment mechanics
- Excavating and loading machine dragline operators
Challenges Women Face in the Skilled Trades
Encouraging women to join field service as an untapped potential source of skilled labor offers the opportunity for economic growth not only for women seeking careers but also for the trades that are growing and need a labor force to support that development. However, there are systemic barriers that make it difficult for women to enter the skilled trades, as well as maintain healthy and safe working environments specifically for women in trades. A study on health and safety for women construction workers identified barriers and issues specific to women that include:
- Coworker acceptance
- Fear of layoff for reporting safety concerns
- Gender discrimination and unequal training
- Inadequate bathrooms
- Job insecurity
- Lack of support
- Macho culture
- Overcompensating due to the constant need to prove one’s self
- Physical limitations
- Poor work/life balance
- Sexual harassment
Solutions identified in the study included increasing women in the field, receiving improved training and education, increasing mentorship opportunities, and improving equality between the way men and women are treated.
Benefits of Working in the Skilled Trades for Women
While there are challenges to overcome for women entering skilled trades, skilled trades and field service industries that are intentional about diversity have a lot to gain by culturing diverse teams and labor forces. As more women seek to enter skilled trades and industries begin to understand the benefits of hiring more tradeswomen, it paves the way for other women to enjoy the benefits of skilled labor jobs such as:
- Affordability and timely education
- Vocational schools, trade schools, and community colleges are often much more affordable and offer the chance for students to graduate with little or no debt. Trade skill students can often begin earning an income after two years of education.
- There are also grants available to help women gain the education they need to pursue a career in some skilled trades, such as manufacturing or construction.
- On-the-job training
- You can gain experience immediately while receiving a paycheck.
- Job opportunities and job security
- There is a large demand for skilled tradespeople in the labor market, and that demand is projected to continue increasing.
- Growth possibilities and job flexibility
- There are significant opportunities to continue developing new skills to become a journeyman, master, or expert, or start your own business as a contractor.
- Opportunity for travel
- Traveling skilled trades positions are often lucrative and available.
- Make a good living
- Skilled tradespeople consistently make a good living and increase the opportunity of making more as they gain more experience.
- Be a role model
- Young women are often discouraged from considering skilled trades, which offer financial independence, job satisfaction, and many career opportunities. Becoming skilled tradeswomen helps to dismantle stereotypes and may inspire more young women.
Pathways for Women to Enter the Trades
There is no single pathway for women who are looking to enter the trades; the only known factor for women in field service is that progress has been made, but women must persist. There are many things that might impact how you may enter the trade, such as the regulations of your state or county, as every state has its own regulations for work and licensure. There are two main ways to enter the trades after you have received any necessary licenses or education: as an employee, or as an entrepreneur.
As an Employee
Many state regulations require on-the-job training and education to receive licensure to work without supervision as a skilled tradesperson. Working for a company offers new tradespeople the opportunity to gain the necessary experience and mentorship needed for licensure, as well as the ability to build working skills and an understanding of the trade.
Women can gain employment by seeking apprenticeships or assistant positions in the trade of their choice. Some states require both on-the-job training as well as classroom education to receive licensure. Your license level will dictate the jobs you may work on and the level of supervision you may need. Licenses also need to be kept up-to-date and often require a renewal application every year or a few years. Some licenses also require continued education to remain up-to-date.
As an Entrepreneur
Entering the skilled trades as an entrepreneur can provide women control over their work, work environment, and future. Some entrepreneurs may choose to work independently as an independent contractor, while others may start with multiple employees. Skilled trade professions often require certain degrees of experience to gain licensure, which can be gained through educational programs or apprenticeships.
Once the appropriate license is gained, skilled tradeswomen can utilize contacts and referrals to freelance and build a reputation and brand. Other tips for building a business may include writing out a business plan, being truly passionate about what you are doing, and being professional—from your services to your organization—from the beginning. Business owners and sole proprietors can also eliminate one of the traditional risks and pain points of going into business in the skilled trades by utilizing new digital payment processing technology, which helps businesses accept more forms of payment and reduces delays between completing a project and accepting payment.
Women looking to enter the skilled trade workforce independently may experience hardships that their male counterparts do not recognize as the gender gap of entrepreneurship. This may include:
- Fewer mentors or role models
- The unequal wage gap between men and women hurts the ability of women to become a successful entrepreneur
- Unequal access to startup funding or venture capital, restricting the credit options available to women to start a business
Oftentimes, skilled trades rely heavily on repeat business or referrals to get off the ground, so ensuring good customer service is extremely valuable to the success of the business—this is doubly true during the first-time service with each customer. Utilizing field service management software tailored to your particular trade can help streamline and organize operations and field solutions, making running a business of any size more flexible and versatile. Utilizing digital resources can also help scale a company that offers skilled trade services and work. For example, utilizing HVAC service management software can help organize field service operations by organizing scheduling, dispatching, invoicing, and billing. Tradeswomen may also consider plumbing software for keeping track of mobile technicians and returning customers, or lawn & landscaping management software for scheduling projects of different sizes and dispatching the right size and makeup of lawn care and landscaping crews.
Skilled Trades Education for Women
In becoming a skilled tradesperson, regardless of whether you choose to work for a company or start your own as an entrepreneur, women must receive the training, education, and certification to work in their trade of choice. There are several ways you can pursue the necessary qualifications to work as a skilled tradesperson, but it is important that you select a training method that aligns with the requirements of your chosen trade so that you can fulfill any needed requirements for licensure.
Working as an apprentice is one of the best ways to prepare for a career in skilled trades. Apprenticeship programs can be especially beneficial for women who may have had a reduced likelihood of being introduced to working with tools while growing up or may not have received encouragement to pursue relevant math or technical education.
Working in an apprenticeship can help you gain practical training as well as necessary knowledge and education through hands-on experience, all while receiving a paycheck and, many times, other benefits such as health insurance. Apprentices can also continue to earn higher wages through their apprenticeships, all while being mentored and making professional connections along the way.
Pre-apprenticeships can be another pathway for women into apprenticeships and high-wage careers. Most apprenticeships must be registered with a state and may take anywhere from 1 to 6 years. A pre-apprenticeship is a program that prepares individuals to enter and succeed in a registered apprenticeship. They can provide educational support for under-represented job seekers, such as women.
Career and Technical Education (CTE)
Career and Technical Education (CTE) are technical programs (formerly called vocational programs) that provide students with applicable skills demanded in the labor market. These programs often simultaneously prepare students for post-secondary degrees in technical fields. The range of activities may include career-specific classes and career-oriented in-school programs that teach both hard and soft skills, and may also include internships and apprenticeships.
CTE programs are available to both youth and adults in a wide range of skilled trade fields. Title IX in career & technical education works to dismantle sex discrimination in CTE programs by providing equal opportunity to all who wish to participate. There are 16 career clusters in CTE programs, which represent 79 career pathways to encourage success in both careers and college for learners. The 16 career clusters include:
- Agriculture, food & natural resources
- Architecture & Construction
- Arts, A/V technology & communications
- Business management & administration
- Education & training
- Government & public administration
- Health Science
- Hospitality & tourism
- Human services
- Information technology
- Law, public safety, corrections & security
- Science, technology, engineering & mathematics
- Transportation, distribution & logistics
Promoting gender equity in career and technical education is important, as women have traditionally been funneled into fields with lower median wages and have faced difficulty and under-representation in traditionally male CTE courses. The 2018 Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act works to prepare students for nontraditional fields and eliminates inequities in access to opportunities for learning and skill development. Career and technical education for women and girls are increasingly important for women seeking to earn a fair wage in a competitive market. Contact your state CTE director to find out about CTE programs available to you at both the high school and post-high school levels.
Colleges and Universities
While CTE programs, pre-apprenticeships, and apprenticeships are all ways to prepare for a career in a skilled trade, there are also programs for skilled trades at colleges and universities. Many two-year community colleges offer vocational training, associate degrees, trade certificates, and gateways to pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships. When choosing a vocational school, it is important to research which schools are reputable, the training programs they offer, the job placement for graduates, and any associated fees and costs.
Before enrolling in a school, consider:
- What the facilities are like, such as the classrooms, workshops, and the types of equipment used.
- What types of materials or support does the school offer, such as supplies and tools, as well as educational support for overcoming language barriers or learning disabilities?
- Who the instructors are. Inquire about the instructors’ qualifications, as well as the typical class size.
- What the success rates of the programs are, such as completion rates, job placement, debt upon graduation, and student experiences.
- If the school is licensed and accredited. Check to see if the school has been licensed and accredited by the proper agencies specific to the skilled trade or industry. The importance of this factor cannot be overstated.
There are two reliable sources to ensure your school of choice has the proper licensure and accreditation:
- The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- The Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Women in Labor Unions
A labor union is a trade organization comprised of workers who unite and champion the needs of the workers. Labor unions have historically worked to ensure fair wages, overtime pay, and other crucial standards such as health and safety regulations and reasonable hours. The union advantage for women may include the promotion of gender equality, better working conditions, higher wages, and employer-provided healthcare.
Women in field services must often work to find their voice and labor unions can help union members achieve the work standards they need to receive equitable benefits, higher wages, and safe working environments. The Status of Women in the States finds that though women are not as likely as men to hold leadership in unions, women’s membership and leadership in labor unions is increasing and women are closing the gender gap of union membership.
Additional Resources and Reading
For both women actively working in the skilled trades, as well as those looking to enter them, there are a large number of resources and organizations that can be useful along the way.
Trade Associations, Organizations, and Unions
There are many trade associations, organizations, and unions that may be helpful for women who are currently in or looking to join, the skilled trades.
ANEW is focused on the construction industry and offers diversity and inclusion training focusing on women and people of color, career exploration programs, pre-apprenticeship training programs, apprentice support services, information, and resources, as well as scholarship opportunities.
Apprenticeship.gov offers resources for employers, educators, and individuals to find and connect with apprenticeship programs, and also provides support.
The Coalition of Labor Union Women offers leadership development, assists with minority issues and affirmative action, and takes part in legislative and political action. The organization supports women’s recruitment, women’s health and wellness, women seeking non-traditional jobs and education, and women in the global community.
Chicago Women in Trade, along with the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship and Employment in Chicago, strategizes and provides practical applications to increase the number of women registering as, and being retained as, apprentices. The organization offers online resources, technical assistance, and training, and works towards gender equity. The organization provides resources for pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships, and construction contractors that are recruiting women. It also provides a pathway for tradeswomen to communicate and support one another.
The Minority and Female Skill Trades Association assists in placing females and minorities in quality construction positions in Southwestern Ohio. The organization assists members with resume building, attending pre-bid conferences, attending job fairs, sending out resumes, and visiting job sites to inquire about open positions.
The National Association of Women in Construction provides a support network for women in construction by providing members with opportunities for professional development, education, networking, leadership training, public service, and more.
The Nontraditional Employment for Women organization offers programs in the state of New York to help women prepare and train for skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades.
Organized by the Department of Education, the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education coordinates and administers programs and initiatives for adult-specific education as well as literacy, career and technical education, and community colleges.
Pride and a Paycheck is a free online publication that reaches out to tradeswomen and organizations to provide voice and agency for women in skilled trades.
Professional Women in Construction works to support, advance, and connect women while promoting diversity in industries such as architecture, engineering, construction, and related industries. They have chapters in New York, Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and are continuing to develop new chapters.
Skills USA provides resources, programs, and assessments for middle school, high school, and post-secondary or college students for technical programs. They include safety instruction and mentoring through their membership.
The united association provides training and recruitment for apprenticeships and certifications. They are committed to developing a diverse and highly-trained workforce and have training and recruitment support programs specifically for women.
The U.S. Small Business Association can be a valuable resource and tool for those pursuing the path of entrepreneurship in the skilled trades. The SMA offers free business counseling, help writing a business plan, and ideas and resources for launching, managing, and growing your business.
The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor develops policies and standards to safeguard the interest of working women. They also conduct inquiries and advocate for equality and economic security for women and promote quality work environments. Additionally, they provide:
- Federal resources for women
- Women in Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) Grants
- Equal pay and transparency protections
- Employment protections for Workers Who are Pregnant and Nursing
Women In Non-Traditional Employment Roles is a non-profit work development program that seeks to train, educate, and prepare women and youth in the construction industry. They provide both youth and adult programs.
Women In Trucking is an organization that seeks to bring gender diversity to transportation by promoting women’s accomplishments in the field, as well as minimizing the challenges that women face in the transportation industry. The organization provides mentoring, job boards, and training for members.
Scholarships for Women in Skilled Trades
There are scholarships available for women seeking pathways through education to find a career in the skilled trades industries.
The Association of Women Contractors offers financial support in the form of scholarships for female students and apprentices who are pursuing skilled trade workers in the construction industry. There are two types of scholarships available:
The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund is a non-profit organization that seeks to serve and assist unemployed female workers. There are two scholarships available:
- The Jeannette Rankin Scholarship is for women 35 and older pursuing technical, vocational, associate, or bachelor’s degrees.
- The Emerge Scholarship is specific to residents of Georgia 25 and older seeking a technical, vocational, associate, or bachelor’s degree.
A scholarship focused on assisting women in advancing in technical training and education. The scholarship covers tuition, fees, and books. Eligible industries include landscape management, plumbing, HVAC, appliance repair, glass service and repair, electrical services, painting, restoration, residential cleaning, and handyperson services.
Funding is available for female students in vocational training at the Refrigeration School. The object of the scholarship is to help female students in financial need.
The Automotive Women’s Alliance Foundation (AWAF) provides scholarships to women that are passionate about the automotive industry. The scholarships are available to those affiliated with the foundation, as well as the public. Applicants must be currently enrolled in an accredited program and hold a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
The Women in Skilled Trades Scholarship Program offers financial assistance to female students who demonstrate financial need. Recipients must be students enrolled at a Tulsa Welding School campus and be able to demonstrate financial need as determined by the financial aid application. Scholarships do not exceed $3,000.