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Although the percentage of women in the construction industry has seen a surge recently – reaching an all-time high in August 2022 – it reflects an only modest achievement given the historically low levels. Notably, despite constituting almost half of the American labor force, women represent just one in ten of today’s construction workers.

Sustainable Change: Embracing Diversity in Skilled Trades

Organizations involved in skilled trades – labor-intensive roles requiring extensive training or education – should strive for meaningful change. By tapping into the potential of this considerable workforce demographic, employers can seize a significant economic opportunity. Deliberate investment can address the skilled labor shortfall, boost economic growth, and forge a more robust, diverse, and inclusive workforce mirroring our communities.

A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights the challenge at hand. As of April 2023, employment in nonresidential specialty trade contractors is still lagging pre-pandemic levels. Simultaneously, roles in the skilled trades, including manufactured building and electronic equipment installation and repair, are among the fastest declining occupations. Business owners in these trades are also finding it challenging to secure talent amid the economic recovery post the pandemic, stifling business growth nationwide.

Diversity Challenges in Skilled Trades

Notably, diversity remains a pressing concern in the skilled trades industry. With construction and skilled trades typically dominated by men, societal expectations have often discouraged young women from exploring these career paths.

Even though the number of women in the industry is higher than ever, they constitute about 10% of the workforce. Disconcertingly, only 0.6% of construction apprentices are Black or Latina women, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

A Shift in Perspective: Making the Trades More Welcoming

Despite these disheartening figures, the industry’s perspective is gradually evolving. Almost nine in ten tradespeople believe that making the sector more welcoming to women would significantly contribute to addressing the current shortage of skilled trades workers.

Cooperative efforts by organizations and corporations can identify socioeconomic barriers contributing to this gap. By investing in these communities and engaging with them, there is a real opportunity to bridge both the skilled labor and diversity gaps in the industry.

A Holistic Approach: Ensuring Diversity and Safety

While increasing the number of women in the industry is important, the focus should also be on fostering overall diversity. This includes providing opportunities to veterans, people of color, and individuals not pursuing a four-year degree. Failing to expand the workforce could lead to more skilled trades jobs going unfilled, affecting the industry adversely.

Looking ahead to 2025, it is projected that 20% of all jobs in North America will be in the skilled trades sector. Alarmingly, women represent just 7% of the entire skilled trades labor force in Canada and less than 4% in the United States, with a majority holding administrative or managerial roles.

A key issue is not the lack of interest among women but ensuring their safety and success in the industry. Various barriers and biases remain persistent. Whether it be inappropriate remarks about appearance or physical ability, overt sexual harassment, unsafe situations like ill-fitting PPE, or subtle biases such as underemployment and wage disparities, we must address these head-on.

To ensure more women join the skilled trades, we need to embark on an unprecedented scale of education and transform the industry into a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment.

Employers and supervisors must promote a culture of respect, inclusivity, and opportunity. This includes educating their workforce and establishing zero-tolerance policies against gender-based discrimination. Teachers should provide comprehensive career guidance to students, including the skilled trades. Parents must dispel sexist stereotypes and the stigmas surrounding the trades.

Those of us who have a platform and a voice need to be more vocal about these issues. During Women in Construction Week, from March 5 to 11, the focus should not just be celebrating the achievements of successful women in construction, but also paving the way for more women to reach the top.

With women representing half of the workforce, their potential to address labor shortages in the skilled trades industry remains largely untapped. The current figures are not acceptable, and we must do better.

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