From tradesmen to tradespeople: Women forging ahead in the skilled trades

It’s an excellent time for women in construction. As The Washington Post reports, we are in the middle of a “new wave” of female builders, contractors and small business owners, wielding not only power tools but also Instagram-friendly hashtags like #MoveOverBob and #tradeswomenofIG.

“There has never been a better time for women to enter skilled trade careers,” Kathleen Culhane, president of Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW), told me. She is one of the many women working to help spread the word about opportunities for women in construction, including the opportunity to take on leadership positions and own businesses.

Danielle Putnam, who co-founded The New Flat Rate with her father and was recently elected president of Women in HVACR, is also working to promote women’s contributions to the field. “It’s not that we haven’t been here all along,” she said, “but for the first time the men’s club has really opened up, and they’re embracing bringing women into the industry in a bigger role.”

Challenging industry stereotypes

Currently, the construction industry is experiencing a worker crisis. “For the past forty years, nobody’s been going into the trades,” Putnam explained. This is due in part to a trend of parents urging their children to pursue four-year college degrees instead of attending trade schools, but it’s also due to some persistent negative stereotypes about the industry.

Organizations like Women in HVACR have to challenge the idea that trade work is a low-wage career with little opportunity for advancement. “That’s not true,” Putnam said. “We’re the ones coming out with all the smart technology and smart homes.” There is opportunity for the person who can design the smart tech, and there’s also opportunity for the person who can install and fix it.

The other big industry stereotype that Putnam hopes to challenge involves the type of work women can expect in a construction career. “When people think of HVAC, they think of technicians.” Although those hands-on jobs are available, many opportunities exist within the construction industry that don’t require steel-toed boots. Anyone considering a position in accounting, bookkeeping or office management can easily set herself up for a future CFO position. Small trades businesses are often owned and operated by female leadership.

Providing education and training

Both Culhane and Putnam work for organizations that provide education and training opportunities to women who want to enter the construction industry. “In the last decade alone we have placed over 2,700 women in these careers through our partnerships with the unionized building and construction trades apprenticeship programs,” Culhane told me.

If you are interested in a construction career, Putnam suggests asking a local construction business if you can do a ride-along, or request to spend a day in a HVAC shop or office. “We would love for people to come and sit in our shops for a day, to observe what it’s like and see if it’s a fit for them.” 

From there, Putnam advises women to consider an internship program before going after an expensive degree. Although you may want additional education or credentials as you build your construction career, your first job is to make sure the career path is right for you. If it is, don’t be afraid to climb the ladder—and, eventually, ask for the corner office. “Women really just need to make themselves available and let it be known that they want those positions and step up.” 

If you’re interested in learning more about opportunities for women in construction, check out organizations like NOW and Women in HVACR. Follow Instagram hashtags, seek out Facebook groups for women in the trades, and ask local shops if they’d be interested in setting up an informational interview or a ride-along. Join the growing group of women who are working to take construction from tradesmen to tradespeople. 

“It’s a critical time for women,” Putnam explained. “It’s our time to shine.”