Push for more women as construction apprentices

By Matthew Dembicki

The huge influx of federal funding for infrastructure projects across the country will yield results only if it has the trained workforce to do the job. And that will require attracting prospective employees into certain sectors that don’t typically pull from underrepresented populations. Take, for example, women in construction careers. While women comprise about half the U.S. workforce and have made advancements in apprenticeships over the past decade, they represent only 4% of the construction trades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

Knowing the challenges that lie ahead, DOL is heavily promoting and highlighting a variety of training opportunities, from short-term and degree programs offered at community colleges and other higher education institutions, to registered apprenticeships. DOL this week cast the spotlight on efforts in Chicago to prepare more women for careers in construction with a $1.3 million federal grant to the state of Illinois and the Chicago Women in Trades. The announcement on Wednesday included high-profile officials such as Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.

DOL says the grant will enforce that women have pathways into higher-paying building trades’ pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships and construction careers, while supporting federal investments in infrastructure and clean energy. Teams led by tradeswomen’s organizations will build equity plans, promote their adoption and guide programming to increase women’s inclusion and equity more quickly, according to the department.

“Illinois has led the nation in creating pathways for women in construction and infrastructure careers,” Pritzker posted on X (formerly Twitter). “Today, we continue that legacy with @USDOL’s grant supporting Illinois’ very own tradeswomen. When we move everyone in our state ahead, only then can we build back stronger.”

There were about 2.4 million employees in infrastructure construction in 2021, with many more needed due to increased state and federal investments, according to a new construction trades fact sheet from the Association of Career and Technical Education. Jobs in infrastructure construction pay more than the national median wage, up to $91,000 per year.

Broader appeal

While DOL’s event this week focused on construction trades and infrastructure, the department and the Biden administration is touting registered apprenticeships as cost-effective pathways to family-sustaining jobs and careers in a growing number of fields, such as nursing, information technology and insurance. For example, South Texas College recently became the first college in the country to be DOL-certified for its nursing apprenticeship program.

And the Biden administration is interested in further leveraging community colleges. Next week, it will hold a roundtable discussion about apprenticeships with targeted community colleges. Representatives from the American Association of Community Colleges will attend.

The department also has been advocating for more women and other underrepresented populations in apprenticeships, in general. Supported by recent DOL partnerships and investments, the number of female apprentices has more than doubled from 2014 to 2022, and women now comprise nearly 14% of active apprentices compared to 9.4% in 2014. Among those federal efforts is through DOL’s Women’s Bureau, which manages the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grant program. Community colleges are partners among several of the grant-funded projects.

New networking initiative

There were almost 600,000 active apprentices in nearly 27,000 registered apprenticeship programs in 2022, according to DOL. With that in mind, the department is tapping current and former apprentices to help spread the word about the programs. Last week, it launched an initiative called the Apprentice Trailblazer that aims to create a national network of apprentices and apprenticeship graduates and provides a platform to feature their stories.

“Serving as an Apprentice Trailblazer will offer additional professional development opportunities for apprentices and graduates, as participants will have the chance to enhance their leadership and teamwork skills and engage in networking and mentorship,” DOL said in a blog post.

The application deadline for the first cohort — which will focus on youths ages 16 to 24 — is September 19. DOL plans to announce the first group during National Apprenticeship Week, November 13-19.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Matthew Dembicki

edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.