Push to increase number of women in construction trades

There is a push to get more women working in the construction trades.

Just three percent of construction workers in the U.S. are women. The numbers are little better in Washington state where nine percent of workers on construction sites here are women.

This, despite the lucrative careers the industry offers.

“I was a pre-apprentice trainer,” said Melinda Nichols. “I’ve been a carpenter for 50 years.”

Nichols was the first apprenticed female carpenter in Washington state.

“You folks are going to be building three tiny houses here,” Nichols says.

Now Nichols is addressing a new class at the TERO Vocational Training Center on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. In the room, two close friends, Ora Yallup and Carissa Robinson, who signed up together.

“I was having a hard time finding a job that I actually wanted and would like to work for with a good paying job,” said Yallup, a Yakama Nation Tribal member, “and a good boss.”

“This is just something that has been available for us and it’s beneficial,” said Robinson, a Tulalip Tribal member. “The construction field has great pay. And there’s a lot to choose from.”

Yet, women still lag behind in construction.

“It wasn’t something that women got into,” said Lisa Marx. “And they didn’t have it in school so much for my era.”

Marx was in her early-40s when she apprenticed as a carpenter.

Now, more than a decade later, she’s an instructor for this 16-week pre-apprentice program open to tribal members.

“We expose them to the trades, teach them the math skills,” said Marx. “We teach them strength and conditioning. We teach them how to build a tiny house.”

The modern heyday for women in the trades was in the 1940s when women took the jobs men left behind to fight in World War II.

They became known as “Rosie the Riveter,” after a real-life Rosie was featured in a popular song.

That ended “when the war ended and all the men came home,” said Cynthia Payne.

Payne is project manager for Washington Women in Trades, a nonprofit support organization.

She says a 2018 University of Washington study found several reasons women who join the trades leave.

“Bad clothing, bad bathrooms,” said Payne, reciting the list of obstacles, “obviously harassment, hazing, child care.”

But she says women are needed in the trades.

“The problem is trade people are all in their 40s and 50s and 60s,” said Payne. “And they’re all retiring.”

Melinda Nichols says it’s time contractors recognize that, too.

“They’re, you know, ‘we need more workers,’” Nichols says. “Well, guess what? If you pick women and people of color, that’s a huge percentage of the actual human beings that you have.”

No one expects that every job on a construction job site will be held by a woman any time soon. But the point is to make sure women know that this, too, is women’s work, work they can do and prosper.