By Katy Macek
The trades are no longer a boys’ club, and Sandy Thistle, a construction and remodeling instructor at Madison College, is working to bring more women and people of color into the industry.
Thistle, who also runs the college’s CampBUILD program, a week-long camp where girls from kindergarten to high school learn carpentry, says she got into the industry because she enjoys the physical challenge and the good- paying wages, as well as a sense of legacy. “You can say, ‘I had a part in building that infrastructure,’” explains Thistle.
“The industry benefits by the qualities women bring,” she says. “Generally, women pay a lot of attention to detail and, generally, we’re decent communicators. The industry needs better communication.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, women made up just 4% of construction and extraction occupations, and 10% of construction and building inspectors.
Thistle says on average, 20% of the students in her program are women at any given time, but in some years she’s seen more than that.
“Last year we had a cohort that started with half women, which was kind of mind-bogglingly awesome,” she says.
HOW TO TRAIN FOR THE TRADES
Stephanie Moreno is a South Central Region Lead Coordinator for Madison’s Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership and The Building Industry Group Skilled Trade Employment Program (WRTP | BIG STEP), an organization that aims to introduce more women, minorities and young workers to careers in the trades through outreach, training and providing resources.
There are about 17 different trades, Moreno says, ranging from laborers, boiler makers, carpenters and plumbers to masonry workers, tile installers, electricians, operator engineers and more.
Thistle says there isn’t one set path into the industry, but typically people have three options.
The traditional route is to go in from the “ground floor”: Work alongside an expert who is willing to hire and train you. Or, obtain formal training through a track like Madison College’s, which is generally taken as a year-long, full-time program.
Another option is a commercial apprenticeship, which also allows you to learn while on the job and attend school. Moreno says apprenticeships range from three to five years, depending on the trade. The salary increases each year of the apprenticeship.
Once you complete your apprenticeship and pass the necessary exams, you become a journey worker. With that, Moreno says you can go anywhere in the U.S., and the union you belong to or your trade can help you find a job.
FIND A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Despite more diversity in the industry, there are still challenges and stereotypes. That’s why Thistle says finding a support system can be crucial.
Dawn McIntosh is CEO and owner of CLE Consulting, a construction company. Her three employees are also women, and they’re all managers. McIntosh says it can still feel as though women have to “earn” the respect and credibility of trade partners.
“Guys do not have as much of a hurdle as women do, because [it still feels like] women have to prove themselves,” she says.
McIntosh helped form Women in the Construction Industry Group of Wisconsin, a group that helps women network and offers resources. It just held its second annual Build X Conference on March 9, 2023, to bring like-minded women together.
“There weren’t any groups like that for me, which is part of the reason I helped form it,” she says.
Leah Stargardter owns their own residential construction company in Madison called Sawdust and Love. Being gender queer was an additional pressure in the industry, according to Stargardter, and says starting their own company helped them. It’s also allowed them to be intentional about the people they work with.
“Almost all the people who help me are female or queer, so my job site has very different conventions these days, and it’s nice,” says Stargardter.
GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING
CampBUILD is a partnership between Madison College and the Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Badgerland. Sandy Thistle says the goal of the camp is to introduce young girls to the trades and build their confidence in using tools, breaking stereotypes and encouraging problem-solving skills that are required to work in the trades. She says about 150 girls participate each year.
The 2023 program will offer day camps over the course of one to three days, depending on age and skill level. This summer’s camps focus on carpentry, design and building.
Contact [email protected] for more information.