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Trading in the Stereotype: More Women Find a Home in the Skilled Services

Jenna McFarland wants to see so many women in the trades. But as only one of four women in the apprentice program in United Association Local 333 serving plumbers, pipefitters, …

Jenna McFarland wants to see so many women in the trades. But as only one of four women in the apprentice program in United Association Local 333 serving plumbers, pipefitters, welders and HVAC service techs throughout mid-Michigan, McFarland  knows she’s going to have work to convince other women to take on a career path that is considered nontraditional even for men.

Yet for the women in the apprentice program already getting paid, on-the-job training, when faced with the choice between a career in the trades and the more “traditional” path of college and job-hunting, the choice was clear.

For Emily Songer, it was about a career rather than just a job. She’d worked in customer service since she was 16 and even got two degrees in management and marketing, but she just wasn’t finding the right fit.

“I had a hard time finding something I liked, where I fit in, and that also paid,” Songer said. “You’ve got to be able to support yourself and think about retirement. I don’t want to work until I’m 80.”

For millennials, the fear of a job without a pension is real. From 1980 through 2008, the proportion of private wage and salary workers participating in defined-benefit pension plans fell from 38 percent to 20 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor. That is not the case for those employed through the unions like Local 333. For the women in the apprentice program, a career in the trades allowed a multitude of freedoms and perks that other career possibilities did not.

Songer and Rachel Need both want to travel, and they both found that an appealing aspect of life in the trades.

“I could be here forever, but I could also work in Colorado, the Dakotas, Ohio. … That is one of our goals, when the kids are done with school, we want to buy a motor home and travel and since he’s (her husband) in the trades and I’m in the trades, it fits us,” Songer said. “We can travel and work.”

Both women transferred into Local 333 from other cities and know how easy it is to make moves when needed. For a generation that doesn’t often stay in one job, planning to stay in the same career until they retire, especially for the 21-year-old Neeb, can seem daunting. But variety and the ability to learn new things on a daily basis appealed to Neeb when she first looked into the trades. While she came into the trade wanting to weld, a skill she learned from her father, she said, “I just wanted to keep my hood down and practice, but when I found out it was a combined local – pipefitting, plumbing and welding – I was all in.”

Neeb tried to go to college for welding before making the switch. “It wasn’t helpful,” she said. “They wanted too much money; and when I passed the basic tests, they told me they didn’t think welding was a good career path for me. So I said that’s it. I’m going into the union.”

After some urging from her husband to just check it out, Songer found herself at a building trades fair, talking to the female president of the local in Cleveland: “I asked her how hard it was and she said, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ ”

McFarland was working through a tech program at Lansing Community College that eventually got shut down. She joined the welding program at LCC.

“The plumbers and pipefitters were in the same building, and anyone you talked to said if you wanted to make money you should be a pipefitter, so I didn’t even have to think about it,” she said.

While she’s great at welding, she’s also working toward other certificates: “They like students to be well-rounded, and I like to have my hand in a lot of things. You stay employed better that way.”

In a trade that can slow down in the winter, staying employed is important. McFarland said while you have to plan for the lulls, she enjoys the lifestyle.

“If you live simply, it’s nice to have time off,” she said. “I do a lot of art welding, so I see it as an opportunity.” 

McFarland said she knows people who take a few months off every year. If they need work, they ask for it.

“You can make a lot of money doing travel calls. It’s a lifestyle,” she said. “Some people get it, some can groove with it and some can’t.”

However, it’s not just the benefits. Consistent raises, guaranteed work and travel opportunities keep McFarland in the trades. As a woman in the trades, she said, “I get asked why I do this all the time. You could not pay me and I’d show up.” She loves knowing that she’s played a part in building the city where she lives.

“I could drive through town and say my name is somewhere in that building. It’s empowering, helping build Lansing and build East Lansing,” she said. “It would be pretty hard to get me to stop doing it.”

Yet some people try. A friend of hers from another union attempted to discourage McFarland from joining, telling her that there were men who would try to run her into the ground to discourage her. That, or they just wouldn’t let her do anything. But, she said, “We make up half the population, why shouldn’t we be here? There’s no reason women can’t do this job.”

Neeb agreed that women must have thick skin to join because they are going to have to deal with guys.

“A lot of women are scared to join a male-dominated trade because of sexual harassment – and a lot of women do deal with it, but if you get into a situation, you need to take it up with your foreman,” Neeb said. “This union has your back 110 percent.”

Neeb was disappointed in the numbers when she came from Colorado where there were 11 women in the union. She’s trying to make it more appealing and has looked into starting a women in the trades group here. She encourages women who are thinking about it to come talk to someone. 

McFarland thinks things are on the right path to invite more women into the trade. She noted that women are being targeted through advertising. Plus, with the introduction of girls into the new Scouts programs, they can earn their welding merit badge.

“It’s going to be good to expose more young people to this stuff, a lot of girls don’t even know it’s an option,” McFarland said.

It’s an occupation that’s not for every woman; however, Songer noted that it’s not for every man either. Yet for McFarland, Neeb and Songer, the opportunity has allowed them to discover something more than just another job.

“I love learning something new every single day,” said Neeb “You’ll make a lot of friends and meet a lot of people. … It’s like a brotherhood – and sisterhood.”


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