September 2015

Ironworker Women Build North America

Construction conference showcases job opportunities for women

LOS ANGELES – Nearly 1,200 women gathered in Los Angeles at the 5th Annual Women Building the Nation conference to promote opportunities for attracting and supporting women in the construction trades.

The conference, held May 1–3 at the Sheraton Gateway LAX, featured sessions on becoming a successful contractor, mentoring, work-life balance, conflict resolution, higher education and recruiting. The North America’s Building Trades Unions and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California sponsored the event.

“The goal of this conference is to increase the number of women coming into the building trades, and to enable women to stay in the trades—by giving them the skills to succeed, and by supporting women’s leadership on the job and in their unions,” says State Building & Construction Trades Council President Robbie Hunter. 

Women remain a small part of the construction workforce, which has better than average job growth and income potential. Ironworkers and other trades are making efforts to attract more women to fill the growing need for skilled workers as more Baby Boomers retire.

“Construction is difficult work. It’s not for the meek, but we’re seeing many women with an aptitude and desire to become welders, which are in high demand,” says Dick Zampa, training director for the District Council of Iron Workers of the State of California and Vicinity. He started a successful program designed to attract women welders to ironwork. About 50 women have joined the apprenticeship in California. 

Upon completion of an apprenticeship, highly skilled ironworker journeypersons can command better-than-average wages. The median income for structural ironworkers was $53,140 in 2014, while reinforcing ironworkers pulled in $54,810, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, job growth for ironworkers is projected at 22 percent for the 10-year period ending 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. All jobs are projected to grow 11 percent in the same period.

Event organizers emphasized only 2.9 percent of construction workers are women. That’s not enough, especially because the industry offers better pay equity—  a hot-button issue this year.

Women in construction earn 93.4 percent of what men earn, according to BLS’s Women in the Labor Force report. That compares with 82 percent overall. Meanwhile, union ironworkers earn the same wages, based on job type and experience, regardless of gender.

Income potential was a big draw for Diahanna Christie, an ironworker from Local 377 in San Francisco. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology, but saw more potential for hitting her financial goals by making the career change.

“It’s given me the opportunity to achieve my goals for home ownership and financial independence faster,” Christie says.

Cathy Zamora, who recently retired from Local 433 in Los Angeles after 28 years in the trade, found her passion in welding. Pay equity happened to be a bonus.

“I was a bit of a tomboy,” Zamora says. “I loved the idea of working with my hands and being outdoors. I don’t think I could make it in an office.”

She fell into the trades after transferring into metal shop after failing her typing class. She found steady work and the job provided a good living for her family.

Now that Zamora has retired, she intends to encourage young women into the trade. Mentoring and support are important to success, but so are learning to adapt to changing work environments and focusing on the skills of the job.

Zamora and fellow ironworker Mary Michels, who also recently retired after 26 years, leaned on each other and learned from each other. They also found doing a good job helped them earn respect from their coworkers.

“My best advice is come in with welding certifications. They are good things to have,” says Michels of Local 433, who entered the trade after working as an accounting clerk. “It shows you know your job and you do it well.”

General Treasurer Bernie Evers was proud to attend the conference, supporting women ironworkers and welcomed the opportunity to expand on the benefits of becoming a union ironworker.

The Women Building the Nation Conference plays a key role in raising morale and our ability to attract and retain ironworker sisters in our union. Seeing the dedication our sisters have to their union and their craft and the inclusive and supportive nature of the event have renewed our belief that every female member should be given an opportunity to attend the event at least once during their career. To support the annual event, the Iron Workers International and IMPACT, once again, sponsored a “scholarship” for two female members from each regional advisory board to attend the WBN Conference. Overall, the conference attracted women from 35 states and provinces, representing all construction trades. Ironworkers had a large presence from across the U.S. and Canada.

Next year, the conference moves to Chicago. It takes place April 29–May 1.