Careers in construction can offer women a path to economic freedom

Graphic by Desiree Tapia, photograph courtesy of Tori Menold

By Tori Menold

November 6, 2023

“We’ve seen young women go from homeless to homeowner, or pay off their student loan debt in just a few years. We’ve seen mothers be able to build better lives for their children,” Tori Menold, co-founder of Women in Skilled Trades (WIST), writes in an op-ed.

Today, Michigan is home to some of the biggest, most economically-significant construction projects in the United States. These include Ford’s “Campus of the Future” in Dearborn, the recently-completed Amazon Fulfillment Center in Detroit, and the Gordie-Howe Bridge that connects Michigan to Canada.

What unites all of these projects – apart from being physical symbols of Michigan’s renaissance in construction and manufacturing – is that all of them have been built in part by graduates of a program called Women in Skilled Trades.

I co-founded Women in Skilled Trades (WIST) with my friend Carol Cool in 2016, motivated by a desire to educate women in Michigan about opportunities in construction and to support women interested in entering the industry. As two women with decades of experience in the trades, albeit primarily on the professional side, Carol and I both know what it’s like to be the “odd woman out” in a workplace full of men; despite making up half the population, women hold only about 5% of jobs in the skilled trades in the United States. In founding WIST, we aimed to change that in Lansing – and hopefully beyond.

After nearly a year of outreach to potential partners in the community, we had our first event in September of 2017. With the help of local building trades unions, women from the Lansing area were able to visit multiple tables to learn more about each trade and engage in hands-on activities unique to the work of each union. Seeing the enthusiasm of the women who attended, Carol and I knew that there was demand for our resources and that we wanted to expand what we could offer.

By 2018, following a series of successful community events, WIST launched our Apprenticeship Readiness Program, which was designed to prepare women to apply to and succeed in union apprenticeships in construction. Over the course of the 13-week (at the time – it’s now 16) pre-apprenticeship program, we cover math, the history of the labor movement, safety practices, blueprint-reading, and strength training. By the end of the program, graduates are CPR/AED-certified and OSHA-30 certified, and have completed applications to their desired apprenticeships.

By now, WIST has offered the Apprenticeship Readiness Program to 11 cohorts of women, including our ongoing cohorts, which are currently training 14 women. While the program was initially offered only in Lansing, as of this year we have expanded to training centers in both Flint and Detroit. Over the past six years, our program has graduated more than 70 women, many of whom have gone on to become electricians, carpenters, operating engineers, and more.

RELATED: These Michigan Women Are Landing Good-Paying Construction Trades Jobs—Here’s Why

Our graduates have gone on to accomplish amazing things, from those who joined the trades at age 18 to those who entered the trades decades into their work experience. We’ve seen young women go from homeless to homeowner, or pay off their student loan debt in just a few years. We’ve seen mothers be able to build better lives for their children and women save up for a vacation of their dreams with their loved ones. And, as I mentioned, our graduates have helped build some of the most critical infrastructure projects in Michigan.

We couldn’t do this work without the support of incredible partners in the community. Our expansion into Flint and Detroit this year was made possible by our affiliation with the Michigan AFL-CIO and the Workforce Development Institute, whose tremendous resources have enabled us to rapidly scale our work.

The North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) curriculum, as well as the engagement of their unions here in Michigan, also ensures our graduates get the best training possible. And organizations including the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, Capital Area Michigan Works, Associated General Contractors of Michigan, US Department of Labor, and Michigan State University have all helped us expand our scope and our impact.

During my years in the construction industry, I’ve seen demand come and go. But with the influx of infrastructure and clean energy funding coming into Michigan from the Biden administration, there is currently a huge demand for skilled laborers – and that looks set to keep growing. This means more opportunities for women like WIST’s graduates to enter the construction workforce and thrive.

Carol Cool and I founded WIST around the idea that representation is important; when you see that others like you can succeed in a career, you’re more likely to take that leap. A lot of women have never seen a female carpenter or electrician before, and have never been told these opportunities are out there. But as more women get into the construction industry with the help of programs like WIST, that will have a ripple effect, making even more women see the skilled trades as a possibility for them.

 

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