With boost from WESA, training program puts women on path to apprenticeship

(by Michael Moore, Union Advocate) Analise Adams, a 22-year-old from Minneapolis, was working in a Linden Hills childcare center two months ago. When her aunt, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told her about a free training opportunity for women considering careers in construction, Adams decided to take a chance.

She quit her childcare job and enrolled in the two-week course.

The risk paid off. Within two weeks of completing the training May 22, Adams had a job as a pre-apprentice electrician with Egan Construction. Working on the contractor’s road crew, Adams helps take down streetlights and pull wire from beneath street level.

“They said my shovel would become my new best friend, and it has,” Adams said during a break from working on a road-construction project around Snelling and University Avenues in St. Paul. “We’re doing a lot of digging.”

Not that she would trade digging for diapers.

“Childcare wasn’t paying the bills. It wasn’t a career. It wasn’t where I wanted to go in life,” Adams said. “This is something I can work for years and years, for life.”

That’s the idea behind Women Building MN, the new pre-apprenticeship program getting women like Adams on track to a middle-class career by way of the Building Trades’ registered apprenticeship programs.

Breaking the mold

Men traditionally have dominated the ranks of apprenticeship programs in Minnesota, and it remains so today. Just 654 of the state’s 9,661 registered apprentices are females, or about 7 percent. But the number of women in apprenticeship programs has doubled over the last 10 years. It’s a trend policymakers, construction firms and Building Trades unions want to continue – at a faster pace.

“There’s a need to diversify the industry,” Building MN Coordinator Vicki Sandberg said. “A lot of women still don’t even think of construction as a career choice.”

The challenge of attracting more women to Building Trades apprenticeships is about more than achieving diversity, though. Industry experts anticipate a shortage of skilled workers in the coming years, according to Jessica Looman, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

Apprenticeship programs took in fewer applicants after the economic downturn as work slowed and opportunities for paid, on-the-job training – the basis of apprenticeship – grew scarce. “Now that work is back, we’re realizing we didn’t bring in enough people to be ready to do the work on the journey level, and we need to make up for lost time,” Looman said.

A looming “retirement boom” makes the need to recruit new workers even more urgent. Most workers in the construction trades are between 48 and 58. “That means they’re going to be retiring anywhere between the next year and the next 20 years,” Looman said.

Making registered apprenticeship opportunities attractive to women, veterans and people of color is an essential step toward meeting contractors’ demand for skilled labor in the coming years. “The Trades are taking a huge leadership initiative, and they really should be applauded and congratulated for the hard work they’re doing in bringing apprenticeship to more people,” Looman said.

Adams says other members of her crew “do an amazing job of teaching as they go.”
 
Designed for women

Women Building MN is based on curriculum developed by Build MN, a two-week crash course and placement program developed by Twin Cities Building Trades unions and their contractors in 2004 to attract non-traditional applicants to their apprenticeship programs.

The Women’s Economic Security Act, passed by state lawmakers last year, provided grant funding for an offshoot focused on women. The training includes an introduction to several crafts, from pipefitting to electrical work. Participants visit training centers operated by local unions, where staff set up demonstrations and hands-on activities.

“With 18 women in the class, we would go into these training centers and overpower the whole thing,” Adams said. “It was just all women. They’re not used to that.”

The course also included seminars on working in male-dominated environments, the culture of the construction industry, the apprenticeship career model and so-called “soft skills” – what to wear, what tools to bring, how to stay safe and more.

Women Building MN will graduate three classes this summer, each with up to 24 women enrolled. And for the first time, Build MN will track graduates’ progress with a mentoring program coordinated by the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the U of M’s Labor Education Service, connecting apprentices with journey-level workers.

Jerome Balsimo, a program coordinator with the AFL-CIO, said having a mentor “helps you deal with some of the issues that come up on the job, things you can’t teach in those two weeks. You need someone who has been through those battles.”

The mentoring program is also supported with funds from the WESA grant, which put a premium on apprentice retention. “We know if we can get people to stay after their first year of registered apprenticeship, their success rate in completing is significantly higher,” Looman said. “People who stay for a second and third year are the people who are going to make a career of it, and we want to help them get through that second and third year.”

‘Who cares if it’s hard?’

Already, the program is paying dividends for Adams, who is soaking up as much knowledge as she can before, she hopes, becoming an IBEW apprentice in the fall.

“I can’t do everything that they’re doing, but the guys on my crew do an amazing job of teaching as they go,” she said. “You have to be willing to go and get it and do the work. Put your foot in it. Who cares if it’s hard work? The whole point of a job is to work hard.

“Yeah, I’m going to have to get down in the mud, and I’m going to have to shovel. I’m going to have to do all of the work the guys are doing. It’s not any different. It’s just I’m a chick, and I’m doing it.”

Article written by Michael Moore, editor of the Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org.