Now hiring in the Great Lakes Bay Region – women in the trades

“The door is wide open right now for women to get into trades,” says Harvey Schneider, Skilled Trades Manager at Delta College. The problem is most of the apprenticeships aren’t getting enough female applicants.

Delta College has over two dozen trade related programs, including Associates Degrees, apprenticeships, and certifications.

Schneider says the advantages to the programs are easy to see. Most times, even before completing a program, women will be hired by companies that pay their tuition and fees.

Long gone are the days when jobs in the trades were strictly off limits to women, Schneider says, but “I don’t think there’s enough young ladies that raise their hand and say ‘I think I could be an electrician,’ or ‘I think I could be a pipefitter,’ or ‘I think I could be an equipment operator.’ They’re just few and far between.

Many young women don't consider the skilled trades when deciding on careers, but these jobs are high paying and rewarding.“I probably don’t have more than a handful in my trades program. The numbers are higher today than they were five years ago, but they’re still low.”

At the same time, Schneider says employers are clamoring to fill jobs with qualified women.

Mary Vandiver is an example of what can happen when women pursue careers in the trades.

Vandiver works for Michigan Sugar and is one of only a few women in Delta’s trade programs. She says she’s found her niche. As a chemist for Michigan Sugar, she saw the posting for an apprenticeship as an Electrician Instrumentation Technician, and applied. She’s finishing her second year of apprenticeship and has another four years before becoming a licensed journeyman.

Like most apprentices, Vandiver’s tuition and fees are paid for by the company.

“Once an employer hires you as an apprentice, 90% of the employers pay for tuition, books and fees,” says Schneider.

Employers such as Michigan Sugar, Dow/Dupont, Corteva, Hemlock Semiconductor, are looking for women fill their skilled trades jobs, Schneider says.

“I’ve never had an employer say they can’t get enough men, but there are always people saying they can’t get enough women to apply.”

Vandiver says she enjoys hands-on work and expanding her knowledge as she completes her apprenticeship at Michigan Sugar. She encourages young women to consider these types of careers.One obstacle may be women don’t consider trade programs when they start looking at educational options. “Student Success and Admissions steer students toward what they want to go into,” says Schneider. “Young ladies don’t know what they don’t know.”

Vandiver knows that firsthand. She earned two Associate’s Degrees before landing her job at Michigan Sugar. She says women and girls need to be steered toward careers in the trades. “They really need to talk more about skilled trades instead of telling (girls) to go to college.”

She says while there have been some challenges in the program, it’s all worth it. “I feel confident to be able to expand my knowledge, but also to do the work because I like hands-on work, being out there in manual labor.”

For men and women considering a trades program, there are resources to help find the best opportunities.

Cheryl Sanford, CEO of Michigan’s Workforce Development Institute, says the recently expanded program Access for All provides in-roads to apprenticeships.

The program, which got started in the Great Lakes Bay Region last winter, will see its first graduating cohort in a few weeks. “Our hope is that our graduates will not only go on to work in the industry, but get hired as an apprentice,” she says.

Access for All is a pathway toward careers in the trades, and doesn’t meet specific apprenticeship skills, Sanford says. Instead, it prepares students to meet entrance requirements for apprenticeships. For example, most apprenticeship programs require specific math skills. Access for All helps graduates acquire those skills.

One obstacle to women seeking apprenticeships may be in the marketing materials.

“People like to see themselves reflected in those jobs,” she says, and more often than not the marketing still shows men in trade jobs. Sanford says that reinforces the stereotype that trade positions are only for men. “Women are making great in-roads, but you have to see yourself reflected in that specific marketing tool.”
Schneider agrees that highlighting women working in the industry is one step toward recruiting more women.

 “Every year MASCI (Michigan Apprentice Steering Committee Incorporated) gives out an apprenticeship award. Last year it was a woman who was with the Michigan Laborers, and a couple years before that there were two women – one from manufacturing and one from construction who were apprentice of the year,” he says.

For women in the field, the rewards are easy to see. The jobs pay well, for example. A licensed electrician can make over $100,000 a year. Whether you’re a man or a woman, getting to that salary level takes time and effort, he adds.

“An apprenticeship is set up to take someone who knows absolutely nothing about the trade to journeyman in as few as four years, so you can come in as an apprentice, and in four years you will be a journeyperson and have the knowledge you need,” he says.

The jobs are out there for women who want them and are willing to go after them, says Schneider. He tells students that if they start at Delta in the fall, they could be hired into an apprenticeship by winter.

“(Employers) would gladly hire more women,” Schneider says. “There are plenty of high-paying, quality jobs out there for women if they just take the initiative to look for them.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.