Women in Apprenticeship Day is Nov. 5. President Obama declared Nov. 1-7 National Apprenticeship Week to support the proven, earn-as-you-learn job training system that “will help rebuild our middle class.”
Minnesotan Kimberly Brinkman understands the benefits of apprenticeship. A proud member of Sprinkler Fitters, UA, Local 417, she completed a five-year apprenticeship program and now has 18 years in the trade. She knows firsthand about union advantages of good wages and benefits, on-the-job and classroom training, and the satisfaction of performing skilled work that builds and maintains America’s infrastructure.
At the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Brinkman works on the restoration of the 110-year old landmark, installing hangers and overhead piping for a fire protection system to keep the building safe for another 100 years. Last month, she took vacation time to visit Washington, D.C., as an invited guest at the White House Summit on Worker Voice.
Obama told participants that he wanted to hear “about the challenges you’re facing right now, the successes you’ve earned, the ideas you have to strengthen workers’ voices across the country.”
Brinkman had something to say. Difficult challenges continue for women entering construction.
The National Women’s Law Center reports that only 2.2 percent of apprentices are women. Just 2.6 percent of construction workers are women.
Brinkman highlighted the barriers women continue to face, “including discrimination, isolation, harassment and lack of work.” For women of color, the challenges are even greater.
Whether apprentice or journeyman, Brinkman lost her job and eventually her home when contractors refused to hire women. She was “starved out” not because there was no work, but because the employers refused to hire women. “But,” she said, “I’m a fighter and I refused to allow discrimination to take away my livelihood.”
Her experiences were echoed in the recent survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. One common experience for almost all tradeswomen is being the only woman on the job site. When Brinkman attended the Women Build Nations Conference in Los Angeles last spring, she was brought to tears when she entered a room with over 1,000 tradeswomen. “What a powerful experience,” she said. “It is an act of courage and strength to work in an industry dominated by men,” she continued. “The stories inspired me … to change the status quo.”
And she is. Passionate about construction and equity, Kim joined with her union sisters to create MNTradeswomen.org. Once women complete their apprenticeships, the focus is on retaining tradeswomen on the job with education, networking, employment on large-scale projects, addressing barriers to career advancement and bringing the voice of tradeswomen to the public. Updating and enforcing equal-employment laws are critical.
Minnesota has had some success. In 2012, the Human Rights Department had a goal of 6 percent of working hours for women and 11 percent for minorities for the State Capitol Restoration Project. The JE Dunn Construction Co. failed to meet the “good faith efforts” standard to diversify its workforce, putting the company’s work on state contracts at risk.
The company hired a female diversity manager and required subcontractors to go through Good Faith Efforts Training. It established partnerships with trade schools, high schools and unions. One year later, the workforce was nearly 35 percent minority, while the female workforce went from 3.45 percent to 21 percent.
MNTradeswomen began a collaboration with industry stakeholders. When several sisters faced sexual harassment on the job, Brinkman said women across trades “stood together … and demanded justice. We got it.” Instead of the women being laid off or moved, as often happens if they complain, the offenders were fired.
Back in the East Room, Obama asked everyone to #StartTheConvo.
Brinkman “started a conversation” about tradeswomen with Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. She brought the conversation back home through social media. Now she is looking to see if the Capitol Restoration Project continues to make progress.
Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar in Moss Beach, Calif., and author (with Ariene Hegewisch) of “Women in the Construction Trades: Earnings, Workplace Discrimination, and the Promise of Green Jobs.”