The age-old proverb “A woman’s work is never done,” has never been truer, especially in the trades. Trades work is perhaps the single sector of the workforce that remains almost entirely dominated by men, not just in practice but in perception. Yet, in the age of automation and technology, the trades need all hands on deck—including the hands of women. In order to sustain a service and profession that, frankly, has no substitute, it is imperative now more than ever to revise the culture and misconceptions that prohibit women from entertaining a career in trade work. Enter empowHER, a newly formed coalition aimed at introducing women to the trades in Milwaukee and shattering the proverbial cement ceiling. empowHER hosted its inaugural meeting in March of 2019 with one purpose: to create a network of women supporting women in the trades. A cornerstone of the organization’s mission is working to improve women’s involvement in the field by seeking out individuals who are dedicated to being successful. The women of empowHER serve as a sounding board and source of guidance, mentoring women just entering the trades in everything from wage expectations and apprenticeship opportunities to handling workplace disputes. Creating awareness of women’s presence and rights in a male-dominated industry is empowHER’s bread and butter. Kilah Engelke, empowHER’s Chairwoman, is dead-set on getting more women into the trades. Engelke began her work as a tradeswoman in the construction industry at 18, moving onto heavy highway work via an apprenticeship with the cement masons at 21. As someone who has spent the entirety of her career in the trades, Engelke offers a unique and refreshing angle of the challenges facing women in the trades: “I find the work extremely rewarding and challenging,” said Engelke, “but there are definitely barriers that still need to be broken down. Each workday is different from the one before and some work situations can be really intense. There is nothing easy about this kind of work, mentally or physically.” Engelke is also acutely aware of the challenges facing tradesmen who are reluctant to open the gates to women: “What a lot of tradesmen don’t understand is that it is entirely in their best interest to welcome underrepresented groups, specifically women, to the trades. In order for the industry to survive and thrive, ideas and practices need to change to reflect the evolution of a workplace that, like it or not, is heavily reliant on diversity and the employment of women.” When asked about how she handles tension or dissent in the workplace, Engelke answered with confidence. “Boundaries are really important. There will always be doubters and haters, but actual harassment, for me, hasn’t been an issue any more than it is in every other line of work, unfortunately.”

There is also the misconception that trades work isn’t mentally challenging and usually only a career pathway reluctantly chosen by those who have exhausted all other possibilities. Inherent in this assumption is that the culture, pay, benefits, and room for advancement in the trades are limited. Starting wages differ significantly between industries, but the average apprentice starts out at around $20/hour plus benefits. The typical apprenticeship lasts 3-5 years; nearing the end of an apprenticeship, wages approach $35-$40/hour plus benefits. “People see the construction industry as something you would do only if you failed at everything else,” explained Engelke. “There is a stigma around the work that makes it seem less than professional, like a second choice. And yet, employees enjoy great wages without crippling student debt. Yes, the work is physically demanding, but it’s hands-on and based almost entirely on teamwork.” Kaylah Antczak is a recent member of trades work who became a member of empowHER after attending a WRTP/BIG STEP Women in the Trades event. Antczak builds her own furniture, which inspired a friend to recommend pursuing a job in construction. After some dabbling in the workforce without much luck, Antczak attended a WRTP/BIG STEP Women in the Trades event. “I found it really inspiring,” said Antczak. “Here, I saw other women succeeding in the trades and encouraging me to join them. It was just the boost I needed to keep trying.” After undergoing testing through WRTP/BIG STEP, Antczak was hired in May of this year as a first-year carpenter apprentice. Then, she connected with the women of empowHER.“I walked into this amazing and supportive group of women who knew exactly what I was going through,” said Antczak. “Talking with these women helped me see the similarities that exist across all the trades. empowHER helped me realize how important it is to be there for women who want to try—to motivate, inspire, and make sure they know this can be a really rewarding and possible career.”

When asked what they like most about their work, both women paused thoughtfully, then gave strikingly similar responses: “I get to leave my worksite every day with a sense of accomplishment. I literally get to make the world different. The relationships I’ve built with my fellow crew members are some of the most rewarding in my life. Each and every day I have the opportunity to prove myself and pave the way for other women.” -Kilah Engelke

“I think the most satisfying aspect of the work I do is the instant gratification it offers. I can step back at the end of the day and see before me a final product—something I helped create. I get to build my community. Every time I drive past a former worksite, I get the opportunity to reflect on who I met there, where I was in my life during that project, and what I built.” -Kaylah Antczak

Engelke and Antczak zeroed in on such a common experience, it’s impossible to ignore: the satisfaction inherent in creating something, being part of something larger than themselves, and reveling in a finished product. Organizations like empowHER and the programs offered by WRTP/BIG STEP illuminate these exciting aspects of working in the trades. Even with inspiration, however, women remain reluctant to join the trades because they believe they lack practical knowledge and experience. Again, this is a common misconception. “A lot of people think they need all this experience, but you really don’t. They’re teaching you,” said Antczak. “You get paid to learn on the job and everything adds up really nicely. People are able to support their families and hobbies and have fulfilling lives.”

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