Amenyonah Bossman manages construction projects across the city of Boston. On most of her sites, she feels isolated.
“Typically, I’m the only woman and it’s always nice when I see another female face,” Bossman said standing on a construction near Logan Airport in East Boston. “There’s someone who I can have lunch with or relate to or someone that might share the same challenges on the job site that you share.”
Growing up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, Bossman saw the challenges facing girls who wanted to work in the trades. Her father was in construction and, for a long time, he would only take her brothers to job sites.
“I started out when I was 13. My dad brought me to one of his job sites because my brothers didn’t want to go and that’s when I found my calling into carpentry,” said Bossman.
When she turned 17, Bossman joined the local carpenters union, and later enrolled at Wentworth Institute of Technology. She eventually graduated with a degree in Construction Management.
Bossman is in the minority. Today, women are underrepresented in union apprenticeships and at career and technical schools. About 10 million people work in construction nationwide, and despite recent efforts the percentage of women in the industry is abysmally low – below 3 percent.
Bossman says part of the problem is that women in the trades lack mentors and face discrimination on the job.
Bossman says she missed out on job opportunities because employers assumed she wasn’t capable of completing the work. Other times, she argues, employers didn’t want to train her.
Now some local unions, employers and technical high schools are joining forces to urge more young women to stick with the trades.
Trades Advisory Group held the first-of-its-kind career fair in Massachusetts, encouraging the more than 400 middle and high school students who turned out to follow nontraditional educational and career paths. (Judy Bass/Minuteman)
Last month, the newly-formed Girls in the Trades Advisory Group held the first-of-its-kind career fair in Massachusetts, encouraging more than 400 middle and high school students who turned out to follow nontraditional educational and career paths.
“For all of us in the trades, we really feel the need to pass the craft onto the next generation,” said Elizabeth Skidmore, an experienced carpenter representing the New England Regional Council of Carpenters at the fair.
Skidmore took a more traditional path, graduating from Tufts with a degree in French before deciding she wanted to be a carpenter.
“This was very much not what my family had dreamed for me. So in a lot of ways it was going very much against the grain,” said Skidmore, adding that she wants the next generation to know that it’s okay to finish high school and go straight into the trades.
“There are points of light,” said Geri Scott, a director with the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future.
Scott says far too many students expect that they will have a ticket to the middle-class after graduating from college when, in fact, many high-paying jobs – with good benefits – don’t actually require a bachelor’s degree.
“A journey worker plumber easily makes $200,000 a year, which you don’t necessarily make as a psychology graduate from a typical liberal arts college. Some will, but most don’t,” said Scott.
Unlike Europeans, Scott says, Americans have stigmatized vocational education, especially for young women.
“Women don’t think of being stonemason or an electrician, so you have to have a strategy to reach them and to demonstrate that this is a good career opportunity for you,” she said.
In Boston, these efforts seem to be working. Unions say the percentage of women in the trades has doubled since 2009. But they admit that there’s still a lot of work to do.
[Cross-posted at On Campus: the WGBH News Higher Education Blog]