Building space: Women break into the skilled trades 

Carpenter Anne Lassere working on a project last year for the 
Building Goodness Foundation.
Photo: Eze Amos Carpenter Anne Lassere working on a project last year for the Building Goodness Foundation. Photo: Eze Amos

Anne Lassere is the very model of a young woman whose career is about to take off. Competent, confident, poised and well-educated, the daughter of a doctor and a lawyer, she’s studied sculpture and anthropology and has lived in France, where she worked as a translator. She’s recently left her job to launch her own firm, at age 32.

The business? Construction.

Lassere is a skilled carpenter with a brand-new contractor’s license, and on the first project for her new company—renovating a house near downtown Charlottesville—she’s handling everything from replacing the flooring to moving the staircase to updating the bathrooms, with a little help from her friends:  plumber Kristi Williams and electrician Chelsea Short.

An all-female construction crew is pretty unusual—women still represent only 3.4 percent of the construction trades workforce, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Yet the skilled construction trades offer covetable jobs: wages are from 3 percent to 22 percent higher than the median in Virginia, according to the Associated General Contractors of America, and most don’t require a college degree. Through apprenticeship programs, tradespeople can even get paid as they learn the job. The gender pay gap is also lower: Women in the construction industry earn 95.7 percent of what men do, compared to the overall national wage gap of about 80 percent. So, at a time when women have become well-established in traditionally male professions ranging from medicine to finance to law, why aren’t we seeing more women plumbers, roofers and masons?

It’s not for lack of jobs: the industry is begging for skilled workers. Construction in Virginia has rebounded, and 92 percent of construction firms report difficulty finding both salaried and hourly craft employees, according to AGC. It’s projected that Virginia’s demand for trade workers, including in construction, will create almost 218,000 jobs between now and September 2020. And many current workers are soon-to-retire boomers.

In response to the shortage, federal, state, and local programs have proliferated to encourage more women to join the field, and they may be making inroads. But the barriers are high.

Why women don’t take the trade route

A CATEC student works on a class project, a modular house that will be auctioned off as a fundraiser. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith.

The first hurdle: a huge bias towards a college education. Pam Haney, general superintendent and safety director for Charlottesville construction firm Martin Horn, sees this attitude in her work with the Central Virginia Apprenticeship Council: “All these kids hear is ‘college, college, college,’” she says. “College isn’t for everyone. We have to change this mindset.”

In Charlottesville, one of the biggest players working to promote the trades is the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center. Operated by the Albemarle County and Charlottesville public school districts, CATEC serves nearly a dozen high schools in the region, and works in partnership with local community colleges and employers to offer workforce education programs for both high school students and adults. Shannon Tomlin, CATEC’s career coordinator for high schools, says, “Some people think our kids aren’t going to go to college. But many do continue their education, and they can use their skills to earn their way.” Many students choose to go on to apprentice programs; others use CATEC courses to earn college credits in the skilled trades program at Piedmont Virgnia Community College, or as elective credits in a degree program. Whatever their choices, all CATEC students graduate with a marketable skill that can start them earning money right after high school.

For the construction trades specifically, girls may count themselves out because they think the jobs require massive muscle power. But nowadays, the trades are as technological as they are manual­—and that includes the attention to detail and planning skills in which females, especially in high school, often outpace their male peers, notes Debbie Gannon, CATEC’s apprenticeship and adult programs coordinator. Besides that, Gannon says, “Sometimes the girls feel they have more to prove—and that makes them work harder and smarter.” Other stereotypes, however, still exist: Tomlin says one female student applied for a skilled trade position, and the interviewer started talking to her about a job as an administrative assistant.

Another, even more basic barrier: many girls don’t get exposed to working with tools from a young age the way boys do. Gannon notes that many schools are now trying to put more emphasis on ‘making’ as a way to give children, of any gender, the chance to create with their hands. Lassere says her first exposure to tools was working for a luthier (a person who makes stringed musical instruments) after high school. “I found out that I really liked the ability to make things.” A few years later, an internship in California working with cob (clay, sand, and straw), adobe, wattle-and-daub, and other natural building materials set her course toward construction.

Earlysville native Williams had tried a range of jobs, from working on a horse farm to day care to housekeeping. She happened to be helping a friend on a plumbing project when she found herself thinking, “This is something I could do every day.” (Most girls, she notes, “turn up their noses at plumbing— they think it’s only about poop.”)

Daisy Dejesus Maine, a historic masonry specialist at UVA, can recall the specific day in 7th grade when she found herself staring at a brick wall and wondering how it was constructed. The following week, her class had a tour at CATEC. She remembers being intimidated at first, but she worked up her nerve to talk with the girl who was taking the masonry class and thought, “Yeah, I can do this.”

Getting more girls to think trades

The women who are involved in the skilled trades­—as educators, as workers, as employers—are committed to getting the word out to others. Tomlin says CATEC’s efforts to get kids thinking about trades as a career starts in the local elementary schools, with outreach promoting training programs in skills from computer programming and auto mechanics to carpentry, electricity, and firefighting. And they make an effort to include females in the mix, either bringing tradeswomen from local employers along on CATEC’s school visits, or having girls already enrolled in the skilled trades classes present on CATEC tours so that students can see female role models. Even when a girl is attracted to skilled trades work, Tomlin says, attitudes can be hard to change; she knows at least one student who was interested in masonry training and had to convince her parents to let her pursue it.   

National organizations like Build Your Future and SkillsUSA offer resources and support for anyone interested in a skilled trades career, and while they don’t have recruiting programs specifically geared to girls, they do try to highlight female participation. Lisa Witt, assistant project manager at Canterbury Enterprises LLC in Chester, runs the carpentry competition for SkillsUSA’s Virginia chapter; in the last five years, she says, it’s become more common to see females involved in the construction trades programs.

The National Association of Women in Construction represents “everyone from women on the site to women who own the company,” says Wendy McQuiggan, president of the Richmond chapter (who herself manages and owns a construction contracting firm.) NAWIC works both sides of the equation, with outreach programs to colleges, trade schools and public education starting as early as 4th grade promoting “the idea of building something, and what goes into that.” NAWIC also educates and encourages employers to actively recruit and train women for the trades jobs they need filled. “A lot of companies offer apprenticeship programs as a good way to both teach skills and mold the kind of workforce they’re seeking,” she says.

Still, women account for less than 10 percent of those participating in apprenticeship programs nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. To support efforts to recruit more women for such programs, last year the department began offering grants to community organizations that get women into apprenticeships or nontraditional skills training programs and provide support groups to improve retention.

Here in Charlottesville, at the city’s largest employer, UVA Facilities Management actively recruits women for its four-year apprenticeship, which covers the cost of training for state certifications (often through courses at CATEC) while providing a paycheck and full employee benefits; this year they had 16 women out of 200 applicants, an increase over previous years. To encourage women to think about the trades, UVA FM has begun sponsoring “Empowering You” Toolbox Workshops, in which a volunteer group of female employees teach women age 16 and older how to DIY. At the March session, the skills demonstrated included upgrading a thermostat, building shelves, and patching drywall. (The next toolbox workshop will be held at the Building Goodness Foundation this Saturday, June 22.) And for the last four years, UVA FM has held a Girls Day for girls ages 10-16, to give them a taste of what tradeswomen can do.

Hands on learning

This year’s Girls Day, held last week, was the largest yet: 90 girls in matching turquoise T-shirts being bussed around campus to go “behind the scenes” at the UVA FM cabinet and sign shop, the University Hospital expansion, and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers—fully fitted out with hard hats, safety goggles, and fluorescent vests at each site. Crowd favorites: Seeing how the elevator being installed in the hospital expansion really works, exploring the emergency helipad, and checking out the cool tools in the sign shop. After lunch (another crowd favorite) in the restaurant at Darden came the vendor fair, with representatives from local companies as well as all aspects of UVA FM’s operations: carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, police, environmental specialists, sustainability experts—and, just for fun, some of the UVA women’s basketball team players and coaches.

While some girls were following diagrams to complete an electrical circuit, others were trying their hand at brick-laying, nail-pounding, fire-extinguishing, and model-building. Hands-on activities were, of course, stressed—from building structures out of Dots candies and toothpicks to taking the “get your safety gear on in three minutes” challenge, or putting together PVC plumbing pipes in a way that would stand up to the hose test.

At UVA’s fourth annual Girls Day on June 13, historic preservation project manager Sarita Herman gave girls a tour of the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers project site. Photo: Jane Centofante/UVA Facilities Management

Molly Shifflett, a UVA FM employee, said her daughter Haley “has been to Girls Day three out of the four times we’ve held it—she would come even if I didn’t work here.” Haley, 15, is interested in architecture and interior design, so learning how things work and what skills are used in construction fits her interests. Other girls said they came because it was interesting to learn about how things work, or because a friend had come the year before and said it was “cool” and “fun.” 

Girls Day, an idea suggested by one of the women apprentices, has grown in popularity each year. In addition, the female construction workers at UVA FM have started an informal group called UVA Tradeswomen that puts on the “Empowering You” workshops and other community projects to provide role models of women working in the construction trades. There’s been discussion about starting a local chapter of NAWIC, as an additional way to spur interest and organize the women already in the field.

The skills of a tradeswoman

What does it take to succeed in this industry? The women who’ve done it mention several key qualities:

A strong personality:  Whether you’re working on a job site or in the construction office, a tough skin is job requirement number one. Construction crews often become a tight-knit group, like a team, and new members of any gender get tested. Lassere described work sites as “definitely a macho culture­—but once I show them that I can do the work and that I will work hard, then they are fiercely loyal as a crew.”  Williams admitted it often took time to win over her male co-workers: “with some of them, it took months.” Even at the management level, says Haney, “there’s this old-boys’ club­—when I first started dealing [as superintendent] with contractors and subcontractors, they’d say, ‘Who are you?’ But with more women coming into construction, that is changing.” Both discrimination and actual sexual harassment can be an issue, but that can be the case in almost any field.

A taste for hard work:  No question the work is physically demanding­—outdoors rain or shine, winter and summer—and there’s definitely a learning curve.  When Maine goes to workshops for young girls, she says “I tell them it’s awesome, and they shouldn’t be discouraged by what other people say. But I also tell them you’re not going to be perfect from the start, these are skills that you have to work to learn.” Jalisa Stinnie, who was working as a Charlottesville City Schools janitor when she saw the poster for UVA FM’s apprenticeship and is now a first-year electrician’s apprentice, says it straight: “You have to be a team player. If you’re lazy, this is not the place for you.”

Confidence: Females who want to learn a construction trade have to believe in themselves, say these successful tradeswomen. Electrician’s apprentice Stinnie says: “There was nothing in my background at all—I could change a light bulb, that’s about it. You need to be self-driven. You have to ask the questions, and not be afraid to ask.” On the flip side, mastering a skill builds self-confidence and self-respect; Haney, who comes “from a construction family” and does her own projects at home, says there’s nothing like “the accomplishment you feel when you build something.”

Lassere, right, works with plumber Kristi Williams on a renovation managed by Lassere’s new company, Artio Contracting LLC. Photo: Eze Amos.

So what do these women tell girls considering entering a trade? Many of them cite the real-world benefits. Electrician Short, now a licensed journeyman, says, “School was not my forte­—I wanted to get out of high school and start life. My apprenticeship paid for my education, and paid me while I was doing it.” Maine, who had started her own business when a teacher from her CATEC classes called her about apprenticing at UVA FM, says, “I’m the only one of my high school friends that didn’t go to college. And they all say now, ‘You’re so smart,’ because I don’t have any debt.” Williams (who has taken full advantage of UVA’s employee benefits to take courses in engineering and construction management) likes the sense of self-reliance: “I don’t have to fork out the money to get things fixed,” she says, “and I don’t have much of a ‘honey do’ list.”

Lassere, who’s already looking ahead to hiring her first employee (a carpenter’s assistant­—female, of course), can’t imagine any other way to go. “I tell [young women] this will be the most rewarding thing they have ever done,” she says. “It’s a skill you’ll always have. And, you know, I can build anything, I can fix anything, and I love it.”

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