Girl Power

Posted on May 13, 2016
Alicia Warner On A Job Site
Alicia Warner, electrician at Bergstrom Electric in Grand Forks, ND.

As young as preschool, we’re asked what we want to be when we grow up. Boys and girls typically answer a little differently. Boys might say football player, firefighter or superhero, and you might hear the little girls say teacher, doctor or princess. While the differences have become less distinct over the years (and will most likely continue to converge), the answers we don’t hear often enough are electrician, plumber and contractor – especially from young girls. Thankfully, those pioneering women who have found their way to the trade industries are writing success stories that are sure to inspire generations to come.

At the construction industry’s peak at the beginning of the 21st century, nearly 300,000 women worked in building trade occupations. That is only about 4 percent of the industry (however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], when you consider women in administrative and office roles, the number climbs closer to 13 percent). While that percentage may seem low, the number of women employed in the trades is greater than those employed as surgeons or physicians and will only continue to rise.

Seeing The Benefits

It’s no surprise that women are getting more involved in the trades, as the industry has increasingly touted the benefits that it has to offer. In fact, in a time when conversations many times turn to a gender gap when it comes to wages, women can expect to earn 20 to 30 percent more in a skilled trade career than in many other professions. According to a 2013 survey by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), more than 40 percent of tradeswomen surveyed were making between $50,000 and $100,000 plus annually.

An earn-as-you-learn approach in the trades is another compelling benefit. According to the BLS, the median income for an electrician in 2014 was slightly higher than that of a social worker, which requires a four-year degree from a university, as well as the student loans that go with it. “That’s one of the great things about the trades,” says Alicia Warner, an electrician at Bergstrom Electric in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “You can come in it with little or no background, and you get to learn on the job from experts who live and breathe the industry every day.” Warner has worked as an electrician for Bergstrom Electric since 2000 and has been a foreman at the company since 2006.

Andrea Jensen Headshot
Andrea Jensen, co-owner of Tri-City Refrigeration in Wisconsin Rapids, WI.

“Money isn’t everything,” she admits. “For me, I didn’t want to sit at a desk all day. As an electrician, I get to do something different all the time. I get to go to different job sites in different cities and meet different people.”

Joining the trades is also a great way for a woman to own her own business. Just ask Andrea Jensen, co-owner of Tri-City Refrigeration in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. She (along with her brother Scott Virnig) owns and operates a state certified women-owned business for residential and commercial HVAC and commercial refrigeration. “It’s nice to be in business for yourself,” she says. “Most people, both men and women, are surprised at first when I tell them I own a business in the trades, but I always get positive feedback.”

Important Roles

As an electrician and a business owner, Warner and Jensen are exceptions in the trade industries, as the majority of women serve in office-related and accounting roles. It is in these roles, however, where women are often considered some of the most important employees.

“The office manager, the bookkeeper, the scheduler – these are roles that make the whole company run,” says Anne Bryson, Grand ForKs branch manager at DSG. “There are a lot of women working behind the scenes to make a business what it is. When a contractor loses their bookkeeper, they really feel the impact.”

New Attitudes

Karen Jorgensen And Anne Bryson Standing Together
(Left) Karen Jorgensen, sales and marketing assistant at DSG. (Right) Anne Bryson, Grand Forks branch manager at DSG.

Bryson is no stranger to the trade industries herself. Her brother-in-law owned Minto Electric, and she would help around the shop growing up. She ended up serving as the office manager before joining DSG in the quotations department, where she worked for nearly 20 years. She eventually became the branch manager at the Grand Forks office in 2013, where she remains today. “Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t common for a woman to be in quotations,” says Bryson. “I think at first, some people doubted my abilities simply because I was a woman. I had to prove myself more than maybe a man would have. Now perceptions have changed dramatically. New generations are much more receptive to women in our industry.”

For Warner, being a woman who works in a field that is predominantly men is a nonissue. “It’s a different world these days,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what my gender is. What matters is that I’m a go-getter. I work hard, and I’m confident. People, whether it’s men or women, respond well to that.”

The change in perception has played a large role in the increase of women in the trades, but so has the recognition of how women’s characteristics and skills can help with everything from job site productivity to successful project management. For instance, women are known to be well organized, which can lead to neat work stations and efficient job sites. “I think most women I know are really good at multitasking,” says Jensen. “So when it comes to juggling all of the facets of a big project over many months, we tend to excel in those situations.”

There is also no denying the fact that despite this being a male-dominated industry, a good number of customers are women, and more women in the trades could mean more insight into what customers want. “From my experIence, a lot of the decision makers are women, particularly when it comes to residential projects,” says Jensen, “Or, at the very least, they have a lot of influence.”

Building The Future

Women continue to obtain more in-the-field roles in the trades, but work remains to be done when it comes to changing perceptions. “As an industry, we don’t reach out to young women as much as we should,” says Karen Jorgensen, sales and marketing assistant at DSG, who has worked for the company since 2007. “If we ignore half of the population, we’re missing out on a valuable pool of potential new recruits. We need to continue to support and build programs that help bring in not just women, but everyone. Business owners, schools, counselors, parents, etc., should all be encouraging young women and men to join us in the trades.”

When more people get involved in the trades, including women, the entire industry benefits, and as more young women realize the potential they have to be successful in these industries, the trades – and the people who serve in them – will only continue to thrive. With inspiring women like those in the trades now leading the way, the future looks promising indeed.