Brave New World
Educators and Employers See More Women Entering Trade Fields
BY KARA SCHWEISS
The economic and employment landscape has shifted over the past several years, yet not all is doom and gloom. One example is the trade sector — which in many cases is thriving, especially here in the Midwest. Trade careers have become a lucrative option for young women seeking higher education, women in entry-level positions looking for career advancement and experienced workers ready for a career change. And these women are succeeding at every level, say employers and educators.
“Women can do the work. There is a place for women in this field; believe me, there is,” says Ed Karnish, training director of the apprenticeship program for IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local Union #22.
Terry McMullen says he’s seen the role of women steadily expand in the TDWL (transportation, distribution, warehousing, logistics) field over the years. McMullen is co-founder, along with his wife, Lori, of TLK Omaha, now part of international company Mainfreight USA, where he serves as branch manager.
“Our job in Omaha is moving product all over the world — we’re like a travel agency for boxes — so it’s business-to-business shipping worldwide; ocean, air or ground. When I started in 1977-78, the ladies did some accounting; that was about it. Now they’re pulling the trigger and making decisions. They’re heading up the big jobs,” he says. “On the executive level, my wife’s the boss. My wife is my boss!”
Not only are women at TDWL close to making up half its workforce, but women are also heavily represented in leadership positions within the company. “I’ve been happily surprised in Omaha to see a good 30 to 40 percent of logistic supply areas headed by women,” he says.
Ed Haynes, a Bellevue University College of Business professor since 2001, who serves as the director of the logistics management program and teaches in the MBA program, says the fact that the TDWL career field has embraced women has brought more women into its related educational programs. In fact, he says, no special efforts are needed to recruit women into the program. “There were the days when it was pretty much a male-oriented world; it’s just not like that anymore,” he says. “It’s probably 50/50 now.”
Women may even have a certain edge over men in the field, Haynes says. “Women are better at multitasking, that’s one thing that works to a woman’s advantage. Men are more linear-focused,” he says. “But there are exceptions to the rule.”
Despite the gains overall, some individual trades still struggle to recruit women. Laurie Mazur, a union-trained electrician and an adjunct instructor with Metro Community College (MCC) who teaches in the electrical technology area, says female students make up 10 percent or less of her commercial wiring classes. Her own experience as an electrician has been so positive that she finds it hard to understand why more women do not enter the field.
“It’s a great trade to have; once you have it nobody can take it away from you,” she says. “And it’s a good way to make a living. I’m a single mom and I maintain a house and a nice car. It’s ever-changing, so you’re constantly learning new things. And you can take this anywhere.”
Mazur, who has been working in the trade since 2000 (her position at MCC originated from a wiring job on campus), says women may falsely perceive they aren’t welcome in the industry. Although her mostly male classes sometimes register surprise on the first day of school when a female teacher walks in, Mazur says her students recognize her expertise and treat her with respect.
A bigger challenge in attracting women to the field is getting past misconceptions about working in the field. Some people mistakenly believe electrical work is unskilled, or that it consists of long days of scaling poles and carrying heavy loads. Women and men alike do need to be willing to put forth significant intellectual effort to successfully complete the training, she says, and although the work can be physically demanding at times, it’s not usually backbreaking.
“I hate to say it because it can be intimidating, but you really have to have a mechanical kind of aptitude,” Mazur says. “Still, you have to be willing to try it. I tell people all the time, ‘You can do it. Try it.’”
Karnish agrees that women are welcome in the field and says his organization would like to see far more than a handful enter the apprenticeship program each year. “We ask all the time, ‘What can we do, what can we do?’” he says, adding that women are simply required to meet the same program expectations as their male counterparts.
“If they’re qualified and they meet the criteria, they’re going to get in,” he says. “This is hard work but if they can tough it out, they can do the work. If I can get them through that first year of apprenticeship, they’ll make it.”
Larry Johnson, president and CEO of the Nebraska Trucking Association, an organization that advocates for transportation and associated industries, says the field of driving in particular has evolved to become more accommodating not only to women, but for any driver with a family. More opportunities for shared (or as Johnson puts it, “Pony Express-style”) routes that get drivers home every night are becoming prevalent, and companies work with educational institutions to ensure training is relevant for the higher-demand and higher-wage jobs that are available. Nevertheless, getting past one of the biggest deterrents — the common perception of driving as endless days on the road — has been challenging.
“I think that’s what everyone thinks of in terms of lifestyle, but there are all kinds of entry points across the industry that we’re particularly interested in getting women involved in,” Johnson says. “It has been somewhat of a man’s world, not necessarily by the industry’s choice, but it’s certainly not probably one of the first (careers) that many women have thought of.”
Haynes says that to bring more women into the field, awareness efforts need to start early. He points out that parents may view trade careers as less prestigious than those promised by traditional four-year college degrees.
“They don’t associate (trades) as a profession,” he says. “But not every kid graduating from high school is going to be an attorney or a doctor or something like that.”
Johnson agrees. “It does take reaching out to parents, more parents and more parents. They didn’t raise their kids to be a truck driver or a carpenter.”
Haynes says through efforts like Nebraska FutureForce and support from industry employers and advocates — along with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and the Nebraska Department of Labor — a new picture is being painted of trade careers. Parents and potential students are becoming more aware that demand in the trades is high, secondary education helps create a viable career path, and the income potential is impressive.
“It’s really an exciting career, and there are a lot of growth opportunities,” he says. “No matter where you are in the United States, there is a need for it in every state and every city. It’s pretty easy to start out making $30,000 or $40,000 a year. You move along and make $60,000 to $70,000 as you move up.”
Johnson says that access to training and education is key to increasing awareness. Programs associated with high schools throughout the state are introducing young women and men with aptitude to trade careers by giving them a head start in their field with college credits they earn before graduating.
“Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are important to transportation at every level,” he says. “We support and participate in programs that get young women involved in STEM. You build that self-confidence and awareness, keep them interested and show those success stories.”
Getting industry connected with students leads to the next step of getting them enrolled in training programs offered by community colleges or traditional four-year universities, Johnson says.
“All of the community colleges in Nebraska have driving and diesel technician programs. Every campus — whether it’s Metropolitan Community College, Northeast, Southeast in Lincoln, Central in Hastings, Mid-Plains in North Platte or Western Community College in Sidney and Scottsbluff — all of them have a truck driving program associated with them and a diesel technician program,” he says.
“What’s happening is that, at least on the diesel technician side, by getting industry onto the campus at both the high school and community college level, we’re both full and wait-listed, and that hasn’t happened on the diesel tech side since 1967.”
Education is the most important step to filling the industry demand for skilled workers, TLK’s McMullen says. “We are working with the Nebraska Logistics Council, which was founded just a little less than a decade ago, and we’ve been working with middle school, high school, community college — all the way to Bellevue (University), which has a master’s degree program — to try to career-pathway people into the transportation, distribution, warehousing and logistics industry.”
Haynes says that careers in the trade fields attract experienced workers, too, and plenty of programs support these efforts to advance or redirect an existing career. Students who enter Bellevue University’s accelerated program in logistics must have already earned a minimum number of college credits (there is also a traditional four-year counterpart), so most of those students also have workforce experience and are highly motivated to succeed.
“Now they’re associating their education with their career and the benefits of that,” Haynes says. “Their employers are seeing that. They’re bringing more value to the company; the students are becoming more savvy to what the industry needs. That’s one of the good things about BU; we talk to industry and they tell us that they want the students to be problem solvers and be able to make decisions, to be able to communicate.”
Employers see the value of additional formal education so much that they’re willing to invest in it, Haynes says. “I would say a majority of the students are getting some sort of assistance from their employer.”
Karnish emphasizes that although educational programs are intense, the rewards are great. “We sell it as an ‘earn as you learn program’,” he says of the IBEW apprenticeship. “The only cost to them in their program is the cost of their books. When you get done with four or five years of college, you end up with a $75,000 note, while they (apprentices) have made $75,000 and no note.”
In the last few years, Mazur says she’s seen a higher percentage of more mature faces among her students at MCC. “I’m seeing a lot more 35, 40-somethings, even 50-year-olds who are looking for a career change,” she says. And she heartily embraces their efforts to change career fields in mid-life. “It doesn’t matter what your age is. You’re never too old to start something new.”
“We would like to have a lot of women and second-career people coming in,” Johnson says of the transportation industry. Johnson, who began his own career as a pre-teen, moving bags at the Trailways in Hastings, says the old career ladder model of starting at the bottom and moving up has changed due to educational programs that can bring people into the trades at a higher level. He says placement tends to be better in the trades than in some fields requiring a traditional four-year degree, because they may have been hit hard by the recession. Some workers are now willing to redirect their dreams and pursue education in a new field to achieve the career stability that has eluded them.
“They were promised that they wouldn’t be washing dishes; that they’d be in a high-wage, high-demand job,” Johnson says. “There was a big sense of entitlement: ‘I did what I was supposed to do and life let me down.’”
Regardless of what it takes to get there, careers in the trades are booming, Haynes says, and he predicts it’s only going to get better in the Midwest. “We’re within two or three days of anywhere in the United States. And I-29 goes north and south, so you have that connection to Canada as well as going down to Mexico. You have the east-west thing going as well as the north-south thing. And it’s not just trucks; it’s railroads and everything else,” he says. “So there’s a big push to make this area kind of the center of distribution. The product has to get moved, it has to get delivered, it has to get through the supply chain. The demand will always be there.”
McMullen agrees that Nebraska is well-positioned. “Because of the focus from the state level on business in Nebraska and creating jobs here, folks are coming here all the time to look at opening new locations. Having that foreign trade zone activated and showing them Nebraska is an internationally-focused state has truly helped the state of Nebraska.”
Johnson says the demand for drivers is so high that the industry is actually facing a shortage, which means wages are higher and training programs are readily accessible to both men and women, who can be on the road and earning a good living in a matter of months.
“It’s a 24-hour, 365-day, worldwide industry,” he says. “It is a national shortage and it is particularly critical in the area of driving — whether that’s a truck, an airplane, railroad engine or subway car.”
Mazur says that, for female contractors, being in the minority can actually be a competitive advantage. “The trades are such a network out there. The more you bounce around, the more people you meet,” she says, adding that those connections help ensure future work. And as a woman in a male-dominated field, “people remember you.”
McMullen says that for men or women, trade careers provide a great living with excellent advancement potential. “I was a driver for Airborne, I worked in a warehouse and I ended up owning my own company,” he says. “Now they usually don’t come up the driver way or warehouse way; that’s pretty old school. Our business development manager worked in a warehouse unloading containers while going to Metropolitan Community College.”
Karnish agrees. “I’ve enjoyed every year. I couldn’t have gone down a better path. Me and my wife have had a good life, my kids were taken care of and I have a good retirement when I leave here.”