America has a labor shortage problem. It started during the pandemic and worsened in 2021 during what’s being dubbed The Great Resignation. Some industries have suffered more than others, struggling to find workers to fill job openings. The skilled trades are among them.
Some trade schools and community colleges have shifted their focus to find creative ways to fill the gap, including recruiting more women.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, an estimated 314,000 women were working in the skilled trades in the U.S. in 2021. The numbers represent a 32.1 percent increase in women in the trades since 2016.
Still, it’s not enough, according to some local community colleges and trade schools. They need to do more to encourage women to pursue the trades as a viable career option.
Dave Becker, Pittsburgh Technical College academic chair for electronics and trades and technology, said that this is why PTC has established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative designed to expand its programming to marginalized and underserved individuals. The college received a federal grant from the National Science Foundation to assist with their efforts.
Women are included in the outreach, said Becker. “Many grants today require colleges and trade schools to expand their access to marginalized communities if they want to receive federal funding,” he said.
Jennifer Cowans, executive director of the Community College of Allegheny County, West Hills Center, said CCAC holds several career fairs throughout the year and works with local trade unions to recruit more women into the fold. They bring in women working in the trades to talk with students about why they chose the skilled trades and how these trades can be women-friendly careers.
There are many reasons women might want to go into the skilled trades, Cowans said. One of the biggest factors is the return on investment. Women enrolled in trade schools or apprentice programs spend less money than they would for a traditional college degree. They also can be trained and on the job in one to two years, with starting salaries that allow them to support a family.
“The barriers that were there before are starting to come down, and women are realizing they can work in the trades,” said Cowans. “The industry is more open to a diverse population and understands that women can do this.”
Another local trade school actively recruiting women into its skilled trades program is Rosedale Technical College in Kennedy Township. “Skilled trades are in demand,” said Kim Bell, director of student enrollment & outreach. “Training for the trades often takes less time and money to train for as opposed to four-year schools.”
Rosedale’s trade programs currently have a 10.7 percent female enrollment, which Bell said is higher than the national average. Every March, the college hosts a Woman in the Trades Event that provides participants the opportunity to shadow in one of Rosedale’s programs. It includes a lunch and learn component, during which time participants can interact with employers, female technicians, and some female Rosedale graduates.
One of the biggest challenges that women face when entering the trades is the stereotype of what a skilled trade worker looks like, said Bell. Trade schools and colleges with trade programs must help women overcome the stigma.
Lexie Nowakowski, a senior operator apprentice with Duquesne Light, said that she’s felt the pressure of being a woman in what typically has been a man’s trade. “The biggest challenge for me was being a female going into a male-based field,” she said. “I wondered if they would accept me. I worried they’d think, ‘Oh, you’re a female. You’re not going to be able to do this job.’” She admitted that she also worried she might not be able to do the work but pressed on with her training to prove to herself that she could.
Before she switched over, Nowakowski had completed a four-year degree program at Slippery Rock University for business management and accounting. She worked in an office and wasn’t feeling fulfilled in her career. “I did the whole office job, and it just wasn’t for me. I always enjoyed being outdoors and I have family in this field as well, so it helped me figure out what I’d be getting into and whether to take that leap,” she said.
Nowakowski entered the apprenticeship program in September 2020 and completed the first phase of the program in July 2021, which included classroom training and field assignments. She was hired by Duquesne Light in September 2021. Duquesne Light’s senior operator apprenticeship program lasts 10 years, so Nowakowski works under the supervision of experienced senior operators as she continues her journey.
Duquesne Light has other female journeymen working through the program. It’s a popular option for women breaking into the trades. Women who venture into trade programs at PTC and CCAC tend to gravitate toward welding; 11 out of the 50 current welding students at PTC are women, with five more enrolling in the next cycle.
Women who want to pursue welding at PTC have two options. They can enroll in the certificate program that takes roughly one year to complete. The alternative is an associate degree that takes seven quarters to complete (roughly two years). Internships are included with all associate degree programs at PTC.
CCAC also has women interested in its welding program. “Welding is a lucrative option for women,” said Cowans. “HVAC is another big one that involves a year of training, costs about $5,000, and then you can start out making $50,000 annually.”
Rosedale said that it has the highest number of female students enrolled in its collision repair program. “There is no one reason for this,” said Bell. “Students may be drawn to the fact that they are able to incorporate their artistic side with the mechanical components.”
As for Nowakowski, she said that she wants to encourage more women to consider working in the trades because it’s a good career option. “Just go for it,” she said. “Be the change that we’ve all been waiting for as women. It’s empowering for all women and for yourself, knowing you’re able to do work that other people may say you can’t.”