More women in Iowa finding work in building trades

Construction Workers
Posted at 1:30 PM, Jun 25, 2022

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — As a child, Joanne Abbas rarely saw women in carpentry jobs. When she attended Kirkwood Community College for her carpentry certification 14 years ago, she was one of a few women in the program.

Now, Abbas, lead carpenter at Lammers Construction Service in Iowa City, is part of a growing population of women in the building trades.

“It was never encouraged, not even discouraged when I was growing up, but no one was saying, ‘Hey, you should consider working in trades,’” she said. “I wanted to do something with my hands, I went to art school, but I needed a more practical trade.”

The number of women in trades is increasing in the United States. Women joining carpentry alone increased by 33.6 percent from 2016-21, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction tradeswomen including laborers, painters and paperhangers, pipe layers, plumbers, pipefitters, steamfitters, and construction and building inspectors increased 32.1 percent in that same time frame.

In Cedar Rapids, enrollment for women in Kirkwood’s trades programs also has been climbing.

Emily Logan, dean of the Kirkwood Industrial Technology department, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette there were 76 female students out of 689 total students in the program in the last academic year.

“We see women with growing, not only interest, but opportunity to join the workforce,” she said. “I also see a strong desire and commitment to among our faculty and industry to diversify our student population and our workforce.”

Logan said the Industrial Technology program is increasing inclusivity for female students by starting a women-in-technology group and providing a range of sizes for safety jackets fitted to every student.

Kim Fensterman, a program manager of Environmental and Fire Programs at Kirkwood, said she’s noticed more women joining the wastewater management industry.

Fensterman said there are nine women currently active in the Kirkwood wastewater management program, and four more female students starting in the fall.

“It’s exciting because they are being hired out right out of our program,” she said.

The culture of trades has shifted to accept women the 30 years that she has worked in her position, Fensterman said.

“Its just a stigma especially on the career and technical, it’s always been a predominantly male industry, even the welding and CNC (computer numerical control machining technology) and wastewater,” she said. “Just breaking ground to get women in was a little unheard of 20 years ago.”

Tiffany VanTomme, a continuing education welding instructor at Kirkwood, said she’s noticed an uptick in women joining the program — at least one woman per the eight-week semester.

Women make up 5 percent of welders in the United States, according to the American Welding Society.

VanTomme said she’d only encountered one other female welder before her job at Kirkwood.

“Welding isn’t the heavy-lifting job that it used to be,” she said. “We’ve got machines that no matter what kind of physical parameters you have, you don’t have to be able to list 100 pounds over your head anymore, so I think everybody should try out a trade.”

Iowa City Neighborhood and Development Services and Kirkwood created the Residential Construction Confidence Course for Women. The course ran from March 2021 to January 2022.

A group of women, instructed by Abbas, demolished a city-owned house, remodeled a kitchen, installed flooring and learned about tool use during the course.

Zachary Johnson, a program developer in Kirkwood’s Industrial Technology department, helped organize course. He said a women’s-only woodworking course will be available in September.

“The whole goal of that class is kind of the same thing, to expose women to topics and skills that they have never had the opportunity to learn,” he said.

Tracy Hightshoe, Neighborhood and Development Services director, said the course gave the students a beginning glimpse into trades.

Neighborhood and Development Services helps with housing rehabilitation in Iowa City.

“I think a lot of them can do the work, they just need to know if they’re interested in it,” Hightshoe said. “The fact that (the course) filled up so fast, I think there is a lot of interest in the class. It gave women the confidence for women to try things at home.”

Victoria Dabler, a student in the first construction class and program manager at Kirkwood, said she didn’t feel comfortable about taking a construction class before this course was offered.

There are not many encouraging environments for women to learn about trades, specifically in construction, she said.

Dabler plans to show her skills to help her mother in some home renovation projects soon.

“Being a young independent woman, I wanted to gain the skills to be able to do basic house repairs, remodeling and things like that because women aren’t socialized growing up to learn those skills,” Dabler said.

“Knowledge is power.” Abbas, at Lammers Construction, said. “The more you learn, the more you can do and the more you can handle.”

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