Labor Shortage Opens Doors for Women Electricians and Construction Workers

April 12, 2002
The construction industry is recruiting and training women to help alleviate the severe skilled labor shortage. All the aspects of construction are short

The construction industry is recruiting and training women to help alleviate the severe skilled labor shortage.

All the aspects of construction are short on manpower right now,” said Marcia Rackley, national president of the National Association of Women in Construction. “We tend to focus on the field, but even your management and engineering disciplines are hurting also. Of course women can fill any of those positions as well as the trades positions.”

More women are choosing nontraditional careers, such as one in the electrical industry, to earn competitive wages and perform challenging work. Veronica Rose, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Electric, Jamaica, N.Y., entered the electrical apprenticeship program in 1978, the year President Carter passed the CETA program that paid unions to take in women and minorities.

“Not only did they have any able body, but they were paid to have an able body,” Rose said. “What they basically told the unions is for every woman and minority you take in, we'll pay for their tools, books, education and half of their salary while you train them. The contractors and the unions loved it. In a class of 25, 12 of us were women and nine are still in the business.”

Rose went on to become one of the first women to earn her master's license, along with two other female journeymen electricians, who now also own electrical contracting firms.

“It felt both wonderful and disheartening to become one of the first female master electricians in New York City,” Rose said. “It was disappointing because there weren't women before me. I was surprised New York wasn't as progressive as other parts of the United States. What was wonderful was being one of the first. Someone has to do it.”

To make it easier for the next generation of electricians, New York City's Local 3 has set up a mentor program that pairs each new female apprentice with a female journeyman or master electrician.

“They said, ‘We've taken a lot in. They're not staying,’” Rose said. “So, they set up a mentor program. They've done miles above any other trade union that I've seen in my life trying to up their retention. The women have established a fabulous network in Local 3.”

With 48 as the average age of the skilled worker, the construction industry is looking to women to help alleviate the labor shortage. Many of these Baby Boomers will retire between 2015 and 2020.

“They can work until they are 65 — that is not the problem,” Rackley said. “The average age needs to be a lot younger. What we're facing now not only is a labor shortage, but in the next five to 10 years, a lot of retirement without replacement. That is going to compound the problem.”

Barbara Adams, a California journeyman electrician, said it is imperative to train young people for the trades before it is too late.

“What I see is little information or encouragement for young people to enter the electrical trade apprenticeship or training programs,” she said. “The high schools seem to only promote college, and let me tell you, college is not for everyone. In this country, I fear a huge fall of the American Empire once us baby-boomers leave the electrical industry. There don't seem to be a whole lot of kids behind us with the skills or knowledge of the old-time conduit bending, wire pulling, the craft of metals formation, foundation installing or welding.”

Monda Mathis, a journeyman electrician from Fort Gaines, Ga., agreed.

“So many young people have become computer experts and programmers,” she said. “The people who are out there building, wiring and testing the equipment are almost a dying breed, and the work force is not as strong as it used to be. What's happening is when these people retire, that knowledge is going to go with them.”

The construction industry is traveling to high schools to recruit the next wave of skilled workers to help alleviate the labor shortage. Rackley said they need to not only educate the young people, but also the school counselors and teachers. Currently, construction ranks 498th out of the 500 careers surveyed by high school students and their parents nationwide.

“We're working on getting young people to choose construction instead of it being a default career,” Rackley said.

Rackley said the sky is the limit for women in the construction industry due to the labor shortage and amount of opportunity.

“Right now, with the demographics in the United States, there's more women than men and more women in the work force,” Rackley said. “We can do most anything with the right training. There's a great potential for women in the construction industry.”