Talk to any professional tradesperson with any measure of success in the industry, and they’ll tell you it’s a long road to get to where they are today, full of early mornings and late nights, bruised arms and bruised egos. But, still, they’ll probably also tell you the hard times can’t compete with the lucrative work and sense of pride they feel at making something from scratch. That’s clear. Less clear, though, is how someone — especially groups underrepresented in the trades, like women — can follow in their footsteps, and start down their own road to becoming a professional in the trades.
As part of our long-running “Women in Drywall” series, consider this our roadmap for people who may be considering a career in the trades — we are focusing on the finishing trades here, because that’s where Trim-Tex lives, but this can apply to just about any other area of interest — but don’t know where to get started. Last time, we looked at why the trades are such a worthwhile, rewarding choice for a profession and how you can begin this journey without much formal training. (You can read “Path to Professional Tradeswoman, Part 1” by hitting the button below.)
In this, the second and final part of this series, let’s dig into the more comprehensive choice for training in the trades: unions and apprenticeships.
Union apprenticeships: ‘Earn while you learn’
Whatever your opinion is on the value of a college education, it’s not for everyone. For a whole lot of people, it can seem as though the rewards aren’t worth the price tag, not to mention the mountains of debt young people often find themselves under to attain a college degree they may not even use in their professional lives.
The IUPAT is looking to create awareness of apprenticeship opportunities as early as middle school. This often involves educating teachers, guidance counselors, parents and caregivers on a career in the IUPAT finishing trades.
“As an IUPAT apprentice, you are a part of a union, so what you do for a living is more than just a job — it’s a career,” says Alice Gwinn, the Curriculum Instruction, Assessment & Technology Coordinator for the Finishing Trades Institute International. “As a union member, you receive trade-specific and safety training, benefits and a pension. The IUPAT invests in its members by providing training, mentorship and leadership opportunities throughout the United States and Canada, including access to regional Women’s Committees. There is opportunity to earn a college degree in one of our programs as well. The best part is that you have a job while we train you, so you earn while you learn!”
Through programs like those offered by the Finishing Trades Institute, you’ll receive professional training to become a journeyperson in everything from painting to wall coverings to, yes, drywall finishing. Post-training, the other big benefit of the union route for drywall finishers is the promise of benefits and a pension on the other side of your apprenticeship — hardly a guarantee in non-union construction.
As Alice mentions above, the union also offers committees for women working in their trade, to help support them and for them to support each other. Of course, many women in drywall deal with their own unique problems, like childcare issues and jobsites that may not always be so welcoming for women. These kinds of support groups can go a very long way toward feeling like someone has your back at all times.
“There's so many things that are intrinsic to a person that the trades bring out in some way,” says Alice. “I just have a tremendous respect for the men and women that do these jobs, because they're not easy jobs. They require time, talent, they require a lot of studying and just a commitment to it. I think it's a great career progression for people, especially the younger kids that — because nowadays college is so expensive — they can go into these trades and they're not going to come out in debt, which is tremendous.”
There are, of course, many local unions out there who would love to bring new finishers into an apprenticeship, and the IUPAT has district councils across North America. To begin a journey into the finishing trades with the IUPAT, you can start by simply filling out a form on their website.
Why Women in Drywall, Why Now?
Ask a bunch of general contractors or foremen about what’s been bugging them on the jobsite lately, and each could probably fill a small library’s worth of books with their different problems — but we can all but guarantee they’ll all share one huge complaint: the shrinking pool of skilled labor. And with a large number of tradespeople retiring en masse in the coming years, it’s only going to get worse.
“The baby boomer generation is retiring over the next eight to 10 years,” says IUPAT Apprenticeship Training Representative Simon Hazelwood. “Across Canada alone, that's approximately 260,000 tradespeople. Those roles have to be filled. Depending on where you are, [women in trades] may represent up to 6 percent of the total workforce. By supporting women in the trades, the IUPAT looks to significantly increase this number of women in the finishing trades.”
This need for the current base of craftspeople to step up and usher in the next generation of drywall finishers is especially crucial in many local district councils for painters and drywall finishers. For this story, we also spoke to the Chicago Women in Trades, an organization dedicated to supporting, advocating, and training women in the Chicagoland area, who described to us a situation where the majority of the young people entering the trades wind up following paths other than finishing. This isn’t because they’re not interested, but because of a lack of current journeypersons willing to provide sponsorships for apprentices.
“To get somebody into the apprenticeship program, you have to get a letter of intent to hire from a contractor,” says Chicago Women in Trades Executive Director Jayne Vellinga. “They really have in their power the ability to change the statistic. There are plenty of women who would jump at the chance to join the apprenticeship program if they have the opportunity. We always have way more women who are interested in that. They end up going [into trades other than finishing] because it's easier to get into some of the other fields where you don't need a letter of intent to hire, which is a really challenging thing to do. Not impossible, but challenging.”
If you’re a union-backed drywall finisher, consider calling your local union rep and asking what you can do to sponsor and mentor young people — especially women — who are looking to the finishing trades as a possible career path. If enough of us step up to the plate here, it could mean the difference between a bright future for the finishing trades, and an empty pension pot.
And if you’re reading this as someone who is looking for their next move in their careers, we hope we’ve shown a spotlight on how you can get started in the trades, either by going through an apprenticeship with an organization like the IUPAT, or in part one of this series, by going the DIY route. Below, you’ll find some resources to help put you on the path to becoming a professional tradesperson. Once you get where you’re going, you won’t regret it.