Labor Shortage and Women in the Trades

A Shortage of Qualified Laborers

“I just can’t find good people.”

It’s a common complaint in any of the fields requiring skilled tradespeople: manufacturing, construction, and repair. A quick Google search for “skilled trade labor shortage” returns a mountain of results. So, if everyone is so sure there’s a shortage of qualified laborers in the skilled trades, where are they disappearing to? Why aren’t new laborers entering the field? And why aren’t we taking steps to fix it?

First, let’s acknowledge that the causes are many, but one of the primary reasons that laborers are disappearing is that the workforce is aging out of the industry. Skilled trades are physically demanding, and most tradespeople retire as soon as they are able, at 65. Considering that the average tradesperson is older than the average employee in other fields, it’s no mystery that laborers are starting to disappear. Another common cause is the current push towards college degrees and intellectual labor. Increasingly, young people are steered away from skilled trades in favor of more academic jobs.

Still, none of this offers a satisfactory explanation for the difficulties in finding skilled tradespeople, nor does it present a solution that the industry itself can offer to its own problems. So what can we do?

A New Image

To the young people entering the workforce now, there are two primary concerns: finding a job that pays well and finding a job that they feel has value or purpose, a job that is moral, in some sense. They are one of the most ideal-driven work cohorts in living memory, and changing the image of our industry is crucial if we want to attract new craftspeople.

I say “craftspeople” because the simple fact is that one of the biggest problems we face is recruiting women. Men make up as much as 95% of the workforce in skilled trades. It’s baked into the industry: we called them “craftsmen,” “foremen,” and “tradesmen.” We complain about not being able to find laborers, yet ignore fully half of the population as candidates. What’s worse, think about the stereotype of the construction worker: a middle-aged man who whistles at women walking by the jobsite.

Beyond limiting ourselves from the get go by employing almost exclusively men, we shoot ourselves in the foot by not being more sensitive to the evolving concerns of young laborers. An industry that’s viewed as sexist will never be alluring to the upcoming labor pool of idealist, value-minded laborers. Pure and simple.

Some people may debate this point, but the fact is that whatever you feel about it won’t change the reality. Women are unequivocally an untapped resource and making them feel welcome has the potential to easily double our workforce.

Be the Change

So, what can we do to address women’s reluctance or lack of interest in joining the skilled trades? Until the perceptions about the industry (and the average jobsite reality) change, it has to start with us. Consider offering women-only classes in your area to lower the intimidation factor – even better if they’re free. The lower the barrier to entry, the more likely people are to attend. Encourage young women and girls to get involved in hands-on crafting. Make literature available to your employees about opportunities to get girls interested in the trades.

Additionally, we need to make sure the jobsite is welcoming and that means examining our own stereotypes. Take a minute and think about some of the ideas you or others on your team may have about women on the jobsite: women aren’t as strong as men, women are too hormonal for physical labor, women will break the jobsite culture. These preconceptions are easily disproven but are nonetheless widely believed. Consider that there are plenty of jobs too heavy for men, as well – so we invented devices, like drywall lifts, to make the work easier. Women are accepted into the military as well and it’s hard to imagine a career field more physically or emotionally demanding than that. If women can serve, women can build. Furthermore, the notion that “men can’t be men” on a jobsite with women should give us all pause. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying or doing something in front of a woman, perhaps it is best not done at all. Respect is respect, period. It doesn’t know gender.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to inform ourselves about the problems women face in the industry. Start reading uplots of women are writing about how to make the industry more appealing to other women. No one knows what women are up against better than other women, so it’s time we listened to them, for our own good as well as theirs.