A Guide for Women in Skilled Trades
Updated May 13, 2022
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- Women remain underrepresented in many trade occupations.
- Vocational colleges offer quick, affordable pathways to well-paying jobs.
- Women who attend trade school can pursue many in-demand and lucrative careers.
As the cost of postsecondary education continues to rise, many individuals are choosing to pursue trade careers. Vocational college or trade school can offer relatively fast, affordable paths to stable, high-paying work. For students unable or uninterested in attending expensive colleges, trades can provide opportunities for well-compensated employment and upward social mobility.
Currently, a large majority of trade school students and graduates are men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), women — who represent about 47% of the total workforce in the U.S. — made up just 8.4% of construction managers, 3.2% of carpenters, and 3.1% of electricians in 2020. Many lucrative trade careers are male-dominated, indicating that women are not granted the same access to these roles. Advancing equity for women in skilled trades can help them enter in-demand careers and earn higher wages.
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What Are Skilled Trade Jobs?
Skilled trade jobs, including carpenters, plumbers, HVAC technicians, and automotive technicians, require in-depth training and a well-developed understanding of specialized techniques focused on safety protocols, tools, and equipment. Skilled tradespeople often complete vocational programs and apprenticeships to hone their technical proficiencies.
In contrast to skilled trade professionals, unskilled trade workers (e.g., wire-pullers and demolition clean-up personnel) perform more routine tasks to assist in specialized projects. Although they receive some on-the-job training and learn important job site safety protocols, they typically do not need extensive technical training.
Why Women Should Consider Skilled Trades
Men currently dominate the skilled trades workforce. However, women have the opportunity to provide valuable new perspectives and help address worker shortages — all while enjoying the advantages of a trade career.
Trade school can provide an excellent return on investment for those looking to start lucrative careers without the financial commitment of a four-year degree. Many students pay roughly $5,000-$15,000 total to attend trade school. In contrast, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual cost of tuition and fees at a four-year institution during the 2018-2019 academic year was $16,318.
In addition to the relative affordability of trade schools compared to four-year colleges, many trade jobs offer excellent salaries. For example, according to the BLS, elevator and escalator installers and repairersearned a median annual wage of $88,540.
Trade school programs also take less time to complete than bachelor's degree programs. Most students finish their vocational training in less than two years, and many complete programs in just a few months. For this reason, trade school can be an excellent option for women, whether they are eager to enter the workforce for the first time or are looking to pivot their careers.
Tradespeople are often self-employed or work for smaller companies. This additional agency and flexibility can be an excellent fit for parents, young people, or anyone with an entrepreneurial mindset.
The Trade Job Shortage
The skilled trades are usually known for their reliability. Many trade workers produce essential products, provide necessary services, and help maintain infrastructure. These skills are usually needed — even during challenging economic times — and there may be an increasing shortage of qualified workers in the coming years.
According to Forbes, just 6.5 million skilled workers were available to fill 7.6 million open jobsin 2019. Because of this shortage, women interested in pursuing a skilled trade should benefit from favorable employment trends.
Skilled Trade Jobs For Women
Read the list below to learn about some of the most popular career paths for skilled workers. Keep in mind that these are just a few of the many possible careers — there are dozens of other trade career options available.
- Carpenter: These individuals build and repair structures made of wood, plastic, drywall, or fiberglass. They may work on private residences, large buildings, or infrastructural projects.
- Electrician: These professionals install and repair electrical systems that power lighting fixtures, communications equipment, motors, and more. They may work on existing circuits and outlets and use various tools to run wiring and secure electrical structures.
- General Contractor: General contractors or construction managers plan and oversee home projects, coordinating contracts with property owners, vendors, subcontractors, and other workers. Specialty contractors might work in trades like masonry, roofing, or landscaping.
- HVAC Technician: Heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC or HVACR) mechanics and installersbuild and maintain specific appliances. They service thermostats, refrigerators, air conditioning units, and other devices in homes and businesses.
Motive Power Trades
- Automotive Technician: Automotive service techs may use specialized computer programs and traditional tools to repair cars and trucks. They identify signs of wear or compromised functionality and perform vehicle maintenance.
- Motorcycle Mechanic: These professionals repair and maintain motorcycles and often develop specialized knowledge of replacing and repairing vehicle parts like spark plugs and transmissions.
- Mechanical Engineer: These individuals use specialized software to design mechanical equipment like engines, turbines, automotive parts, generators, and refrigeration systems.
- Diagnostic Technician: These technicians specialize in inspecting and assessing vehicles and automotive equipment for defects, signs of wear, and potential hazards.
- Chef: In restaurants and other food service settings, these professionals supervise food preparation and supervise kitchen staff. They may also plan menus, select ingredients, and manage kitchen inventory.
- Teacher Assistant: These individuals help primary and secondary school teachers supervise students and manage classroom activities. Often, teachers or educational assistants will help students participate in lessons individually or in small groups.
- Hairstylist: Stylists cut, color, and style hair. Many of these individuals work in salons or barber shops, though some may work with clients on a freelance basis.
- Massage Therapist: These professionals knead muscles to help clients relax, manage pain, improve circulation, or heal injuries.
- Dental Technician: These technicians work with dentists to create and fix custom dental appliances, including bridges, crowns, dentures, and orthodontic devices.
- Jeweler: These individuals specialize in producing, sizing, repairing, and appraising jewelry. Some jewelers design original pieces or run commercial businesses, while others work on commission for other designers or sellers.
- Medical Appliance Technician: These technicians build, fit, and repair supportive medical appliances like orthotics, braces, and prosthetics.
- Agricultural or Food Science Technician: These workers help agricultural scientists assess the quality of crops and other products. They may collect samples from crops and livestock, testing for the presence of diseases, pests, or growth abnormalities.
Pros and Cons of Skilled Trades
- Affordability: Trade school is generally less expensive than college. NCES reports that the average tuition and fees at a four-year institution was more than $16,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year.In contrast, many vocational programs cost a total of $5,000 and $15,000.
- Job Security: Many trade workers, like carpenters and plumbers, provide necessary services that require specialized skills and tend to be more robust against economic downturns. Additionally, a current shortage of skilled trade workers leaves room for more professionals to enter specific fields.
- Above-Average Salary: Many tradespeople earn excellent salaries. According to the BLS, in May 2020, diagnostic medical sonographers earned a median salary of $75,920 and elevator and escalator installers and repairers earned a median annual wage of $88,540.
- Gender Discrimination Against Women: Although there are laws that aim to protect American workers from discrimination, gender stereotypes can seriously impact career outcomes. Often, skilled trades are needlessly equated with masculinity. Women in trade roles may face inaccurate perceptions that jobs are too "tough" or physically demanding for them.
Occupational segregation can perpetuate economic disadvantages for women workers. According to Catalyst, in 2019, 26 of the 30 highest-paying occupations were dominated by men, while 23 of the 30 lowest-paying occupations were dominated by women.
Women in skilled trades dominated by men may also be more vulnerable to harassment. In a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 28% of women in male-dominated fields reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace — higher than the 20% of women who reported sexual harassment in work places dominated by women.
- Underrepresentation of Women: When considering their career trajectories, women may overlook opportunities to pursue trades if their teachers do not encourage them to take courses like woodworking or automotive technology. Due to this lack of support, many younger women and girls do not explore vocational training after high school.
Additionally, women job seekers who consider pursuing skilled trades may be concerned about potential harassment, intimidation, or social stigma. As a result, women make up a small percentage of professionals in trade occupations. For example, according to the BLS, only 3.8% of welders, 2.3% of plumbers, and 1.5% of HVAC technicians were women in 2020.
- Additional Hands-On Training May Be Required: Many trade school programs follow fast-paced, intensive curricula that can take just a few months to complete. In school, students receive hands-on training designed to simulate the demands of their occupations, often in workshop or lab settings. However, sometimes programs alone are not enough to prepare learners for their careers. Students should keep this in mind when planning for their future.
For example, many students supplement their training with apprenticeships. On the job, new professionals have the opportunity to observe experienced workers. They may also learn additional relevant skills, such as bookkeeping.
Skilled Trades Education Options
Shorter program lengths, streamlined curricula, results-driven work, and comparative affordability make vocational training an excellent option for people from all walks of life.
Trade Schools for Women
Vocational programs equip learners with the knowledge they need for skilled trade jobs. Some students choose to pursue their training throughcommunity colleges, though many of these institutions require participants to complete general education requirements. In contrast, trade schools allow students to focus almost exclusively on occupation-specific skills. Depending on the trade and state-specific regulations, vocational programs may prepare learners for licensing or certification exams.
Although options vary, most training programs do not exceed two years. Additionally, many shorter certification programs condense curricula into several weeks to a few months. During their training, learners gain supervised, hands-on experience focusing on essential tools, equipment, techniques, and safety protocols.
Women in Trades Scholarships
Although technical training tends to be more affordable than attending a four-year college or university, trade school can still be a significant financial investment. Fortunately, there are numerous organizations specifically designed to provide women with scholarships.
For example, Tulsa Welding School offers the Women in the Skilled Trades Scholarshipfor students in need of additional financial aid. A similar scholarship exists at the Refrigeration School in Phoenix, Arizona. These financial aid programs encourage women to pursue careers where they are traditionally underrepresented.
Individuals entering trade fields often begin their careers with apprenticeships. Sometimes trade unions pair workers with more experienced professionals so that they can observe the daily operations of their chosen occupation.
In some cases, aspiring trade professionals can complete an apprenticeship in lieu of attending trade school or completing other formal technical training. However, this depends on the field and state-specific regulations.
Some states require skilled workers to complete a set number of apprenticeship hours before they can obtain a license. Fortunately, most apprenticeships are paid, and apprentices can earn intermittent pay raises as they gain experience.
Other Resources for Women in Skilled Trades
- U.S. Department of Labor - Women's Bureau: This federal agency oversees policy related to the rights of working women. It advocates for equal pay and promotes regulations that protect women from discriminatory practices. The bureau also works to recognize and honor the unique experiences of working women of color.
- Coalition of Labor Women Union: This organization gives women in skilled trade unions spaces to network and discuss specific challenges.
- Tradeswomen Inc.: This organization helps women find careers and apprenticeships in skilled trades, treating trade occupations as avenues of empowerment and economic security.
Frequently Asked Questions About Women in Skilled Trades
What percentage of trade jobs are held by women?
According to NPR, women make up approximately 3% of trade professionals. More specifically, according to the BLS, 3.8% of welders, 2.3% of plumbers, and 1.5% of HVAC technicians were women as of 2020. Although these tiny percentages have climbed in recent decades, trade professions have been slower to diversify than many other male-dominated areas like STEM fields, law, and finance.
What is the highest-paying trade?
Some trade professionals earn excellent salaries. Elevator and escalator installers and repairers, for example, earned a median income of $88,540 in 2020, and those employed by the government earned a median of $96,530. In the same year, radiation therapists earned a median salary of $86,850 and dental hygienists earned $77,090.
What skilled trade jobs are in high demand right now?
The BLS projects that jobs for massage therapists will grow by 32% between 2020 and 2030 -- much faster than the average projected growth across all occupations (8%). During the same period, jobs for hairstylists are projected to grow 19% and positions for chefs are projected to increase 25%. Some occupations and industries are projected to undergo even more rapid growth. For example, jobs for wind turbine technicians are projected to grow 68% from 2020-2030.
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Sarah Holliday is a higher education administrator with over seven years of experience working with nontraditional and traditional-aged students in various areas related to career development, professional development, and personal enrichment. In addition to coaching students, Holliday works as an adjunct, teaching English, career development, and business courses in asynchronous, hybrid, and synchronous formats. Holliday holds a BA from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in English communication and technology and a master's from Walden University in instructional design and technology (training and performance improvement). She is currently pursuing her doctor of science in information and interaction design from the University of Baltimore. Holliday also possesses her Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF) certificate from the Center for Credentialing and Education. She is passionate about education and technology and hopes to strengthen online learning for adult learners.
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