Women in the trades
Few women choose trade jobs. Clark wants to change that.
By Lily Raff McCaulou
In the machine shop one day this winter, student Sunshine Hill confessed — over the squeal of grinding metal — that she was having a rough week.
Hill, 34, had just weaned her youngest daughter, aged 2. She’d been up late each night, tending to the tearful toddler.
At first glance, it’s easy to overlook that Hill is the only woman among the 70 or so students in the Machining program. In the shop, she ties her long brown hair into a messy bun. She wears baggy coveralls that dwarf her petite frame and protective eyeglasses that shield her face. But no matter how you conceal the physical differences, the single mom of three is different from her classmates.
“It’s brutal being a mom… this is like a vacation,” she said, pointing to the hulking machine that whirred behind her.
In 2014, just 4.5 percent of machinists in the U.S. were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In steel plants and coal mines, on construction sites and manufacturing lines, women are underrepresented. Women make up a tiny percentage of what are known as the skilled trades, such as electricians and plumbers (2 percent) and automotive mechanics (1 percent). Women are also outnumbered in the service trades, such as emergency medical technicians (26 percent), computer network administrators (19 percent) and commercial pilots (7 percent).
Nationwide, less than 3 percent of all tradespeople are women, but nearly 7 percent of Oregonians and Washingtonians in the trades are women. Recent efforts from Clark College aim to push that percentage even higher.
Connie Ashbrook is executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, a nonprofit that helps women in Oregon and Washington find work in the trades. Beginning in the 1970s, Ashbrook worked as a dump truck driver, as a carpenter and then as an elevator constructor—the highest-paying construction trade.
Oregon Tradeswomen helps women find new career paths and land apprenticeships or other training opportunities in the trades. The group also manages an image library, to increase the visibility of women in the trades. They believe that if young girls regularly see women wearing hard hats, the girls will have an easier time envisioning themselves working in construction.
Hundreds of thousands of tradeswomen go to work each morning without recognition. According to 2014 data from the BLS, 97 percent of dental hygienists are women, and just 5 percent are construction workers. Yet the construction industry is so massive that more than twice as many women are construction workers (397,100) as dental hygienists (169,900).
When Hill left her husband she needed to find a job to support her three children. Previously, she had worked in food service and on road crews, but those jobs just didn’t provide her with enough money. She loves cars but has scoliosis and worries about the physical toll of lifting engines and scooting under chassis in an auto shop. Her father encouraged her to try machining instead. In looking for a new career, Hill said her gender didn’t factor into her thinking.
Bruce Wells, chair of the Machine Technology Department at Clark College, said machinist jobs start at $16 to $18 per hour, but experienced workers can make over $40 per hour or $83,200 a year.
Large companies have an incentive to hire women—federal government contracts require companies to provide opportunities to women, veterans and minorities. Still, Wells said he isn’t actively recruiting women into Clark’s program because he isn’t recruiting at all. For the last five years, the Machining program has been at capacity.
“If you’re a machinist, you can go anywhere in the country and find a job. It’s always been that way. We (machinists) have something to do with almost everything people touch all day,” he said.
The molds for a plastic toothbrush. Food processing equipment. Truck parts that get products to stores. All of these items were made by machinists.
“It’s the most misunderstood of the trades,” Wells said.
“I think the stigma that goes with this kind of work is still there, that it’s a dirty job,” he said. “That’s not really true anymore, machining is very high-tech now.” He believes that’s one reason why more women don’t go into the industry.
Job opportunities are “wide open. Companies are just screaming for employees,” Wells said.
Gunderson Marine manufactures rail cars and ocean-going barges in its Portland facility. Mark Eitzen, general manager of Gunderson, said the company has 1,100 employees, 86 of whom are women, including 40 in the manufacturing shop—or about 4 percent in manufacturing.
Clark College Foundation’s board member Brad Skinner is a retired employee of Greenbrier Companies. Gunderson Marine is a division of its business.
Nearly three years ago, the company went on a hiring spree to handle a backlog of orders for its heavy equipment. Of the 200 or so employees hired then, “a much higher percentage than usual” were women, Eitzen said.
Eitzen said he’s not sure why that happened. The country was still clawing its way out of a recession, so perhaps there were more applicants than usual. Eitzen said the women told more women about the jobs and word spread. The company has since connected with Oregon Tradeswomen to find additional female workers, and its percentage of female employees has ticked upward.
The average Gunderson wage is approximately $65,000 per year with full benefits, Eitzen said. Without many skilled welders or a manufacturing base in the area, the company has developed its own training program, so most entry-level employees do not need prior experience.
“I think it’s worked out well for us,” Eitzen said of the increased percentage of women employees. The company values its diversity, according to Eitzen.
“We have 17 different languages spoken at our facility,” he said. “The best day at Gunderson is Christmas Eve, because we have a potluck and people bring in all these ethnic foods that are their family specialties.”
The Columbia Group of companies has manufacturing facilities on three continents with nearly 1,000 team members worldwide. Click to view available jobs.
Gunderson Marine, a manufacturer of rail cars and ocean-going barges, also has a variety of openings. Click to view jobs. Select Careers and enter Portland for a local list.
Ashbrook, of Oregon Tradeswomen, said countless studies have shown that when there’s increased diversity in the workplace, productivity and creativity go up too.
Dwight Hughes, head of the Network Technology Department at Clark College, has a pragmatic reason for recruiting more women: they’re excellent students.
“My female students tend to be in the top 10 percent of the class,” he said.
Many have children and go back to school to brighten the future for the entire family. They take their schoolwork seriously and do whatever it takes to succeed. Hughes said network technology jobs are great for moms—they’re not physically demanding but bring in $50,000 to $80,000 per year.
“Pretty much every company, agency or organization that has a computer network needs someone to manage, maintain and protect that network,” he said. Jobs include offering technical support to employees or working behind the scenes as a network administrator.
Of the roughly 90 students currently in Clark’s network technology programs, only eight are women. The responsibilities that drive some mothers to succeed in school likely deter others from enrolling in the first place.
“A lot of our female applicants have scheduling issues—they have kids,” Hughes said. “We don’t have a dropout problem with our female population. The problem is getting them in to begin with.”
Two years ago, Hughes began moving classes online. Using a webcam and headset from home, a student can have live interactions with his or her teacher and classmates. By meeting remotely and in small groups, students gain greater flexibility in their schedules. Hughes said in three years, the entire program should be online, and that the idea for the change came from feedback from alumni. He hopes the flexibility also allows him to recruit and retain female instructors—something that’s been a struggle so far.
To Hughes, one important aspect of recruiting more women is showing them other women who are successful in the field, such as Shawn Cismar. The 49-year-old watched her husband go through the Network Technology program at Clark College after he was laid off from a manufacturing job. Excited by her husband’s job prospects, Cismar, who was working in customer service at the time, decided to enroll. She found work in her new field immediately and has had new opportunities pop up each year since.
“I have actual money in my savings,” she said. “When the Apple Watch came out, I just went out and got it. It’s a $300 purchase and I still have to be mindful of it, of course, but I didn’t have to save for it.”
She works as a network contractor, one of three females on a team of 13 people.
“It’s the first career I’ve loved,” she said. “It’s nice on Sunday night to look forward to going to work.”
Ashbrook, of Oregon Tradeswomen, said her nonprofit draws women from all walks of life into the trades.
“The one common thing among all of our students is the sense of adventure and willingness to challenge themselves,” she said.
In a way, the lack of women in the trades offers a strange advantage.
“For a man to go into the trades, it’s sometimes seen as coming in second to going to college,” she said. “For a woman, it’s seen as a challenge, it’s seen as kind of cool.”
Though she has raced motorcycles—a hobby in which she often found herself the only female—Cismar said she was at first intimidated to go to work in a male-dominated industry. She found that her male coworkers weren’t so different from her after all.
“I remember going into this thinking, ‘What are they going to talk about all day?’” she recalled. “Food. They talk about food all day. It’s universal.”
Changing the perceptions of occupations in the trades—that the jobs are dirty—include introducing students to the high-tech solutions in manufacturing. Industries such as high-precision technology, advanced robotics, automation and information technologies. Commonly referred to as advanced manufacturing or lean thinking, the process focuses on building products with precise control using automation thereby reducing waste and costs. Clark College’s Professional and Technical programs offer students these modern technologies, preparing them for regional and global jobs. Encouraging women to enroll in and complete the coursework is part of an ongoing strategy.
Do you work in the trades or know a tradeswoman? Share your story on Clark’s alumni page on Facebook.
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist living in Portland, Ore. She is the author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of 2012. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.