The construction industry is keenly aware of its aging workforce and the need to ensure a talent pipeline into the future. Almost 24% of our tradespeople are set to retire in the next 10 years. As an industry, our goal is to not only replace these retirees, but to grow our ranks with a focus on inclusivity.

Women make up a proportion of every building trade, but the stigma of construction as men’s work, societal pressures, childrearing obligations especially during the pandemic, and a lack of apprenticeship education in schools have maintained a small percentage of women in the trades. Figures from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development show that the average proportion of female apprentices across all the building trades is 3%.

The construction industry is making a significant effort to change its demographics and culture, and these efforts are being led by our local labor unions.

“District Council 7, along with the entire industry, understands the need to grow our workforce. Our union has been working hard to build a membership base that better reflects our community, which means introducing more women and people of color to painting, drywall finishing and glazing,” said Jeff Mehrhoff, IUPAT DC7’s business manager.

Construction is up against every other industry fighting for a finite number of eligible workers. The average wage of a journeyworker in Southeast Wisconsin is over $42/hour on average, almost double the mean hourly wage of workers in our state. Unions are also at the forefront of pay equity and lead the nation in ensuring that pay is based on years of service and skills, not race or gender.

However, wages aren’t the only factor considered during a job search. Since 2015, maternity leave, mental health resources and child care benefits have been enacted across the building trades to better serve union members and their families.

“It’s not just about recruiting women into the trades,” Mehrhoff added, “It’s crucial to retain our members by offering benefits and encouraging opportunities and support networks that set them up for success.”

Ironworkers Local 8 have taken a number of steps to ensure that this work is a sustainable career path for women.

“Six years ago, the Iron Workers Union changed the industry by offering the first of its kind, paid maternity leave in the building trades. Our female Ironworkers have the option to take leave six months prior to delivery of their baby and up to eight weeks after. While on leave they get about two thirds of their pay,” said Charlie Falkner, Ironworkers Local 8 business manager. “Ironworkers are some of the hardest working tradespeople you’ll find, and that puts us in the position of making sure we take care of our own, including our female ironworkers who want to grow their families and come back to the trade stronger than ever.

“It was important for us to make this change in policy because we understand the complexities of being a woman in a job that’s already hard on your body, not to mention during pregnancy,” Falkner added. “Maternity leave and mental health or substance abuse resources don’t apply to every member, but it’s important for the industry to be flexible and accommodate the needs of our hardworking tradespeople.”

For women already in the trades, there’s some catching up to do in terms of taking on leadership roles and having a seat at the table. Developing professional networks, partnering with organizations and creating industry-wide events have proved to be helpful to increase women’s representation in construction.

“The Painter’s International created a Women’s Leadership Series to provide resources for tradeswomen interested in progressing in their career, whether that’s at their company, in union organizing or beyond,” said Jennipher Neduzak, IUPAT DC7’s communications director. “Our programming received great reviews at last year’s Tradeswomen Build Nations Conference and is open to any trade that would find it useful. Mentorship and councils like ours give women additional training to excel in a male dominated industry”.

Jennipher’s experience at the Painters Union has been helpful with her involvement in empowHER, a non-profit organization that focuses on mentorship, leadership and solidarity for current and future women in construction. EmpowHER also promotes the numerous career opportunities in construction, from working on-site on projects in any of the 18 crafts, to opportunities in the office with partner contractors.

In 2022, empowHER was one of two organizations in the U.S. to be awarded a pilot project grant. Its purpose was to test whether the availability of child care was a factor holding women back in the field. The funding from Trades Futures, the non-profit arm of the North American Building Trades Unions, allows empowHER to assist women with their child care needs if they’re working on The Couture, The Potawatomi Hotel expansion project or certain energy projects with labor agreements. In addition, through a collaboration with WRTP|BIG STEP, Milwaukee’s Building Trades and local contractors, empowHER is celebrating Women in Construction Week (March 5-11) with two industry events covering career building and networking opportunities.

With industry investment, the union trades are able to offer a high-paying career path with world-class apprenticeship training, renowned benefit packages and employment resources to help members throughout their career. Though this commentary focuses on opportunities for women, the industry values every tradesperson in its ranks and works hard to support all its members. As Dan Bukiewicz, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council, states, “Becoming a more diverse and inclusive industry benefits our members, our signatory employers and our communities. When our member’s health, wages and job security are taken care of, they can keep producing the quality work that we’re known for.”

Together as an industry, we can embrace inclusion to build up a workforce that can carry Milwaukee’s next wave of development.

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