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Op-ed

The country’s skilled labor shortage is an equity problem | GUEST COMMENTARY

After last year’s record numbers of resignations, almost every industry in America is currently in need of more workers. While the overall labor shortage in America has been extensively broadcast, it is less widely known that we are currently in dire need of one specific kind of laborer: skilled trade workers in fields including construction, electrical work and plumbing.

Today, there are 650,000 open construction jobs in the United States and 10 million unfilled manufacturing jobs globally. The number of job openings will likely increase with the recent passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which will allocate massive amounts of funding to the upkeep of highways, bridges and water systems across the country.

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But the skilled labor shortage is not just about jobs; it’s an equity problem.

Even before the great resignation, few women and Black people made up the construction industry: just 11% and 6% respectively, according to a 2020 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This trend within the construction sector is mirrored in the economy at large, and the pandemic has made it worse. In November 2021, when the nation saw job numbers improve overall, Black women still lagged behind their pre-pandemic employment levels by 4.2% — the furthest behind of all groups.

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What could be driving this lack of equity in the skilled trades?

In the mid-20th century, jobs in skilled trades sectors, such as manufacturing and construction, once presented pathways to economic security for Black communities. As these industries became more outsourced and insecure, Black workers — already facing a market designed to exclude them — suffered not just the loss of worker protections and good wages, but also occupational discrimination and exploitation on the job. Black women were left out of this workforce altogether, offered mainly low-wage domestic work.

This history offers one possible explanation for the current cultural perceptions and stereotypes surrounding the trades. Jobs like welding and building are painted as viable career opportunities for men only, not as jobs “fit for a woman.” And even if they do break barriers and begin these careers, Black women often find themselves isolated from other women and facing discrimination on the job, being some of the only people to represent not just their gender, but their skin color, while in the field.

Recent research by major manufacturing company Stanley Black & Decker highlights how these perceptions are shaping career choices. The study found that 53% of teen boys are familiar with trades careers, compared to only 36% of teen girls. On top of this, less than half of girls (48%) think a skilled trade career is a good option, compared to 69% of teen boys.

This gendered disparity is also racialized: Nearly half (49%) of minority youth have never even considered a career in the skilled trades. Of those who saw the trades as an unfavorable career option, they cited a lack of interest and a poor skill fit as the top two reasons behind their thinking.

Skilled trade careers offer opportunities to obtain hands-on experience in a field that can help lead to higher wages and economic independence, driving greater representation and the possibility to financially empower the next generation of Black Americans.

As the founder and executive director of Black Women Build, a homeownership and wealth building initiative training Black women in carpentry, electrical work and plumbing in order to restore vacant houses in West Baltimore, I have seen firsthand how educating people in the trades can create both a positive economic and social impact. Due to historic redlining, neglect and disenfranchisement over several decades, areas of West Baltimore remain impoverished and suffer from high crime outcomes. Many who pass through our side of the county line may judge us by surface-level attributes; they see only dilapidated houses and under-employed people. Instead, they should see the potential to rebuild these houses by the same people they have disregarded.

For the past two years, Black Women Build has been rehabilitating the Baltimore community, turning once-derelict houses into permanent homes. Every time I support another Black woman in restoring a home, I see how her perception — and other peoples’ perceptions — of skilled trade work changes. These women went from never having used a circular saw, jig saw or miter saw to, in just a few months, being able to help rebuild entire homes. That’s empowering. Creating opportunities for Black women and their communities to do this work increases representation in these sectors. And representation in all forms, whether in the media, in politics or in a particular field, is necessary to illustrate the economic possibilities available for all Black women and girls.

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The first house I restored was with Quanshay Henderson, the first participant of Black Women Build. I was searching for someone interested in rebuilding these houses with me — someone who saw the potential of the block we were working on and the power of the trades to create and restore more than just a house but create a home.

After calling a local construction training program, I was connected to Ms. Henderson, a Black woman who had grown up in Baltimore but had never built a day in her life. Despite having barely any money or funding, we completely gutted a house from top to bottom, turning it into the beautiful home it is now, which Ms. Henderson bought as a first-time homeowner. No one in her family line had ever owned a home. Not only did this directly impact Ms. Henderson’s trajectory, but it impacted our program’s trajectory as well: Because of this singular home, people are beginning to see the potential and beauty of this little block in Baltimore. We have completed six more houses on the same block as Ms. Henderson’s. It no longer seems unrealistic to invest in it, to invest in the Black community.

We know that working in the trades can be a pipeline to greater economic autonomy, but landing a good trade job really begins with accessing good training. As of now, sufficient training opportunities to upskill and reskill Black women are hard to find. Companies like Stanley Black & Decker are working to turn the tide, committing millions through initiatives like the Global Impact Challenge, which will provide grants over the next five years to organizations committed to training the next generation of skilled tradespeople. Others like Rock the Trades, a workforce development initiative, provide opportunities for empowerment to those interested in pursuing a career in the skilled trades, either through mentorships or scholarships.

With programs like these, the potential for driving impact is limitless. Organizations like mine provide an opportunity to expand our work and resources to inspire more Black women. We have the people, we just need the training and the support to drive even further awareness of the potential that trade skills careers hold, especially for minorities.

To truly create greater equity in the trades, we need to invest in several solutions in tandem:

  • We need to increase representation in the field;
  • We need to provide more access and exposure to the field;
  • We need to highlight role models that showcase the possibilities for Black women and girls;
  • We need to reduce implicit bias in the field, increasing a sense of purpose and safety for Black women on the job;
  • And we need to create more financial pathways to ensure people can easily access skilled trades training programs.

A job does more than just provide an income — it provides a direct route to autonomy and financial stability. Ultimately, this is how we set up future generations for success. That’s why it’s so crucial to invest in opportunities to help Black women access jobs like those in construction and other skilled trades. Investing in the skilled trades is not only critical for our global economic recovery, but for our social and cultural recovery as well.

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Shelley Halstead (shelley@blackwomenbuild.org) is founder and executive director of Black Women Build in Baltimore.


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