Filling the Gender Gap in Portland’s Construction Industry

Connie Ashbrook has seen hundreds of women pass through Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.’s (OTI) pre-apprenticeships since she helped found the organization in 1989. One that sticks out in her memory is a 24-year-old student who relocated to Portland, Oregon, all the way from Wyoming because she wanted a career that mixed brain with brawn.

“She saw our information on the internet, and she’d always wanted to be a carpenter but didn’t know how to get in,” says Ashbrook, who worked as an elevator constructor in the 1980s. “So she moved here for [our classes].” After she finished, she entered the field as a journey level carpenter, and today she has her own business.

For 27 years, OTI’s seven-week free pre-apprenticeship programs have forged a path for women in Portland and throughout the Northwestern U.S. into the types of high-paying construction jobs traditionally taken on by men. Whether it’s laying brickwork, setting roof trusses, metalworking or any other task you’ll find on a work site, OTI’s message to women, according to program director Leigh McIlvaine, is clear: “They’re needed in these careers, they’re wanted, and they’re just as capable as men are.”

The group is the primary driver behind Oregon’s spot as a national leader in giving women access to trade apprenticeships. Nearly 7 percent of all apprenticeship students in the state are women — a rate that’s still a mere fraction of the male workforce that graduates into construction jobs year after year, but more than double the ratio of women students in 25 states where the U.S. Department of Labor oversees apprenticeship programs, which is 3.2 percent.

Most of their attendees are from the greater Portland area, and often from backgrounds of poverty. On average, women who sign up for an OTI pre-apprenticeship program come to class with an income of $11,000 a year — about $700 below the federal poverty line. But when they leave, they’re qualified for at least 19 apprenticeship programs that can link them directly with unions and contractors in Portland. Last year, OTI trained its 1,000th student, and 60 of its 73 students from the 2015 session were placed into training programs or jobs fresh out of graduation.

Students who finish both tiers of apprenticing can expect an average beginning wage of just over $15 an hour, with potential for raises ranging from $19 to $40 an hour.

“As the number of women in the trades has increased, it’s become more normalized,” says Ashbrook, who joined the field at a time when seeing a woman in a construction zone was a rarity. “Many women and their families now think of it as a choice that’s somewhat unusual and something that is a challenge, but that is exciting and also worth celebrating.”

In a city that’s often described as the whitest urban center in the United States, OTI makes it a priority to reach out to Portland’s women of color, many of whom have been pushed out of central neighborhoods in the wake of aggressive gentrification. They pay for poster advertisements (written both in English and Spanish) at bus stops on the fringe of the city, reach out to churches, and send info packets to civil society groups that work with communities of color and government social services offices.

According to McIlvaine, it seems to be working.

“This year we have close to 30 percent of women of color graduating from our pre-apprenticeship training program, and that is 4 or 5 percentage points higher than the percentage of people of color” that make up Portland’s population, she says.

A look at the 19 apprenticeship programs that OTI partners with reveals how much of an impact the group is having on creating a norm around women trade workers from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Those programs boast an average women enrollment percentage of around 9.3 percent, and about 70 percent of the women students come directly from OTI.

McIlvaine says those numbers are primed to increase. “There’s going to be a real shortage of workers in these fields in the coming years, as we’re expecting a very high number of retirements to take place,” she says.

McIlvaine oversees a vital federal-level grant that the U.S. Department of Labor issues to pre-apprenticeship organizations every year through its Women in Apprenticeship and Non-Traditional Occupations (WANTO) program. Other groups throughout the country that are similarly focused on empowering women in these industries, like Tradeswomen Inc. in Oakland, California, and Non-Traditional Employment for Women in New York, have depended on this grant as a pillar of their funding portfolios.

Last year, OTI, Tradeswomen and Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women (a pre-apprenticeship program headquartered in Seattle) were awarded $650,000 from WANTO — the biggest amount ever split among the Western trio. But the grant for getting women into construction trades has narrowly avoided cuts or total erasure during a handful of congressional budget sessions in Washington, D.C. over the past decade, and groups like OTI now watch those sessions with bated breath every year.

Legislators argue it’s a loss that the national budget can handle, noting that, although women pre-apprenticeship programs like OTI have been getting some form of federal funding since the 1970s, women still have only managed to take up 3 percent of apprenticeships annually on a national level.

McIlvaine says they need to look at the cities where these programs have been funded to realize fully what influence federal grants like WANTO have had.

“Look at the Portland metro area, or areas like Chicago and New York, where there are more WANTO grantees,” she says. “Those areas have numbers that are so far beyond the national average that it’s impossible to not think that these initiatives are working.”

“It’s work that’s going to take a very long time and more financial commitments,” she adds.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley has long been a big proponent of keeping this grant alive, and was partially credited with bringing it through last year’s budget session. He’s commended OTI apprenticeship students as they participated on a number of groundbreaking projects in Portland, like when residents in the Cully neighborhoodbought the Sugar Shack, an old strip club, and renovated it into a community center.

“Women hold less than 3 percent of high-wage jobs in the construction industry and face many barriers in gaining access to these nontraditional jobs,” says Courtney Warner Crowell, a spokesperson for Merkley’s office. She notes that Merkley fights for WANTO funding because it puts “Oregon women to work in high-wage, electrical, mechanical, highway and utility trades jobs that will provide financial security for a lifetime.”

But one of the biggest barriers women face in these industries is managing the bias in an overwhelmingly male workplace, says Maura Kelly, a sociologist at Portland State University who has researched trends in women’s employment in trade jobs. In Oregon, she says, white women and women of color face similar issues once they enter construction jobs.

“Seventy percent of women say they’ve experienced discrimination on their gender or race or experienced sexual harassment on the job site,” says Kelly, citing her research. “This is not new — everyone that works in the industry would have a general sense that this is the case. But I really think this is important because it shows that it’s not just anecdotal,” she says, noting that the 70 percent applies to interviews she conducted with 500 women apprentices in Oregon.

OTI believes that with continued exposure, that percentage might see a slight decrease. Nearly 50 percent of new enrollees get referred to OTI through word-of-mouth, which implies that past graduates are finding enough fulfillment in the jobs to encourage others to look into them.

In the end, they’re interested in these jobs for the same exact reasons anyone else would be. “These are good jobs, opportunities for women who didn’t have the chance to go to college, where they’re going to get paid to work through their apprenticeship,” says Kelly. “They want to do something, they want to build something, they want to make something with their hands — they want to use their bodies.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.