Columbus Career Schools Bring Young Women Into The Trade Industry

May 26, 2016

Each year at Columbus technical schools, students scramble to enlist in career programs for cosmetology and culinary arts. Dozens will wind up on the waiting list, while programs in the construction trades, where students learn skills like welding, masonry and electrical, will have openings.

The wages are more competitive and workers are in high demand, but these programs in the construction trades have the lowest rate of student enrollment, especially among women. 

At the Fort Hayes Career Center, about a dozen students work in the garage to paint and fasten a set of large wooden sheds. Once the shingles are tacked down and the varnish dried they’ll be sold to other local high schools.

The profits go to fund the Career Center. It’s a project students complete each year and it’s what first caught the attention of Danny Wilson.

“So when I came here and looked at the carpentry, and I saw the juniors building their sheds, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what they could do,” said Danny.

In her skinny jeans and purple tank-top, Danny is your average teen. But she's one of few females to have found a calling in carpentry. In the 2013-2014 school year, there were just five women in Columbus technical schools enrolled in a similar program for the construction trades — compared to 69 men. 

Danny Wilson is one of two female students in the last six years to pick a career in carpentry at Fort Hayes Career Center.
Credit Esther Honig / WOSU

Next week Danny will graduate from the Fort Hayes Career Center. Unlike most U.S. high-schoolers she already has a job offer on the table, and it’s not your bottom-of-the-barrel entry level position either. Danny says this is the place she wants to retire from.

Her senior year Danny was part of a new pilot program. An earn-to-learn apprenticeship where she could study in school while getting paid to work in carpentry.

After just a few months her employer offered her a job on their construction team. Then, Danny says, they asked what she wanted in the next five years.

“I want to go to apprenticeship classes to become a master carpenter and go to college to get my construction management degree and they said ok.”

Not only will Danny make about $20 an hour with full benefits, her company offered tuition reimbursement for her four-year degree. With opportunities like this, it’s a wonder why more women don’t consider studying the trades?

Pegeen Cleary Potts is the director of the Career Technical Education Program at Fort Hayes. She spends a lot of time speaking with students about their career options and says, sometimes it helps to explain earning potential in terms they can relate to. Like, what kind of car can you afford if you only make $30,000 a year?

“If you go into a middle school, nine out of 10 are going to say they want to be in the NBA,” Potts says. “So how do you take that and say ok, but let’s have a plan B?”

Potts says, students tend to pick a career based on the people who’ve influenced them in their lives. That might explain why most of the young women in Columbus vocational schools study cosmetology or early-childhood development.

These are great careers. But according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their hourly wage averages around $11 an hour; wages in the trade industry are almost double that with benefits, and all without a college degree. For Potts, these career options fulfill a fundamental objective to a technical-school education — lifting students out of poverty.

“Giving the kids a hand up, not a ‘handout,” says Potts. “And a way to middle class.”

The U.S. Department of Labor says women hold just four percent of construction jobs, and it’s been that way for the last 40 years. Now the industry faces an aging workforce and a shortage of young skilled workers to replace them. Recruiting more women has become a viable solution for the future.

Jim Negron is the vice president of Corna Kokosing, the construction company that hired Danny Wilson. He says he's seen more women work in engineering, but far fewer women have entered into a career in trades.

“Over the last 20 years the trades have not been looked at as a noble profession.” Says Negron.

Negron says his company is working to find more recruits like Danny. They know that means reaching out to women early on.

“What we are forced to do now is look into the middle schools so that we can help promote our industry and hopefully attract more women into the trade,” says Negron.

To do that Danny’s become something of a spokesperson. On behalf of Fort Hayes Career Center, she visits middle schools and talks to young girls about professions like hers. She lets them try on her hard hat and talks about working with a staff of mostly men — and it seems to be working. Next year there are five women signed up for the carpentry program.