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Removing barriers for women in apprenticeships and trades

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“This ain’t no place for dames.”

Comments like this one, directed at a tradeswoman represented by Equal Rights Advocates, are all too common on construction and other male-dominated worksites. They isolate and ostracize the few women who work in the trades.

{mosads}While women represent almost 70% of all low-wage workers, they represent just 3% of workers in high-wage, high-skill occupations such as construction. This is due in large part to the major barriers they face to entering and succeeding in apprenticeship programs. Women currently account for only 6.3% of apprentices and less than 3% of apprentices in the construction and building trades. At a time when women make up 47% of the workforce—and when the construction industry is seeing its highest growth rate since 2005—such paltry numbers are simply unacceptable. 

This week, we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week, meant to highlight the vital role that apprenticeship programs play in moving our country’s trades and other vital industries forward. But on today’s National Women in Apprenticeship Day, we cannot celebrate these programs without also highlighting their failure to recruit and retain women.

On average, women working full time, year-round continue to earn just 80 cents for every dollar earned by white men. African American women make just 64 cents and Latinas make only 54 cents on the dollar. At its current progression, the overall gender wage gap will not close until 2058. The poverty rates for women remain at historically high levels, substantially above the poverty rates for men. More than one in seven women – nearly 18.4 million – lived in poverty in 2014 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than half of all poor children live in families headed by women. Meanwhile, apprentices earn an average starting salary of $50,000 per year, nearly $10,000 higher than the median salary earned by women in 2015. Over the course of her lifetime, a woman working as an electrician will make over $1 million more than her counterpart working in traditionally “female-dominated” jobs, such as a childcare or service provider. On average, wages in the construction industry are as much as 50 percent higher than in female-dominated fields, and workers in the trades have access to pension plans and other benefits that provide economic security for themselves and their families.

It is vital that we take concrete steps to increase women’s access to these opportunities. California has begun to address the dismal representation of women in apprenticeship programs with Assembly Bill 2288, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, which requires pre-apprenticeship programs that receive federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds to develop a plan for outreach, recruitment, and retention of women. This new legislation is a step in the right direction as pre-apprenticeship programs are a key pathway to entering apprenticeships.

However, to truly address the problem, we need a concerted effort at the state and federal level. Last November, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued proposed regulations updating the equal employment opportunity and affirmative action requirements for registered apprenticeship programs for the first time in nearly 40 years. The percentage of women in apprenticeships has remained stagnant in that time. It is crucial that the DOL issue final regulations that provide the strongest possible tools for increasing the participation and retention of women and institute a robust enforcement plan to ensure compliance.

By removing barriers to the entry and advancement of women in apprenticeships, we can ensure that more women are able to achieve economic stability for themselves and their families.

Jessica Stender is a Senior Staff Attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, a national civil rights nonprofit, and co-chairs the Policy Committee of the national Taskforce on Tradeswomen Issues.  

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 


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