Credit: Olivia Obineme

Arlena Williams’s evenings off work are filled with the sound of trains rumbling past the trailer where she lives with her daughter in the south suburb of Blue Island. The 45-year-old’s home, nestled within a Cook County forest preserve, abuts a transportation yard that services companies carrying, among other things, goods manufactured by workers like her—one of only about 150 female members of Chicago’s Pipefitters Local 597. An estimated $58 billion worth of exports travels out from Chicago annually, lumbering along tracks extending across the country. The hum of daily train traffic, so familiar to Williams, symbolizes Chicago’s production potential, but the former graphic designer never imagined that she could find her place in the city’s manufacturing industry. That is, until she was introduced to all the things a career in the trades could offer an unfulfilled office worker like herself who was drawn like a moth to the flame of a welding torch.

“When I first was introduced to welding, I was just shocked,” Williams says. A push eight years ago from Chicago Women in Trades, a local nonprofit founded in 1981, pointed her in a new professional direction. She recalls thinking at the time, This is what I’ve been looking for all my life.

According to a 2015 industry-wide audit conducted by accounting giant Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a talent development organization, nearly 3.4 million manufacturing jobs will become available by 2025 as the baby boomer generation retires and the economy continues to grow. But more than half of those jobs, around two million, will remain unfilled due to a disparity between the skills employers demand and a lack of access to technical training for potential workers. While this dynamic may be alarming, it’s certainly nothing new—this skills gap goes back decades, and local groups have long sought a way to address the growing divide.

The shop floor buzzes with the sound of heavy machinery slicing across shiny metal, which welders then melt down, faces hidden behind protective masks, as acetylene torches flicker on and off.Credit: Olivia Obineme

The Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) has been minding the skills gap for more than 30 years, sensing an enormous opportunity to help low-income Chicagoans compete for employment in the trades. The development agency started its first free training program in 1985. By many indicators, JARC’s Careers in Manufacturing Program has been a success. Ninety percent of people who complete the program—70 percent of whom are people of color—have secured full-time employment upon graduation. But for nearly 25 years, Careers in Manufacturing exhibited a glaring demographic gap: very few women.

JARC’s executive vice president Regan Brewer Johnson says she doesn’t recall any women in training when she joined the organization as a program coordinator in 2008. She says it was surprising considering a manufacturing job is ideal for women seeking economic self-sufficiency or single mothers who need to support a family, due to the high starting wages and access to good benefits such as health care and retirement plans. After receiving a grant from the Eleanor Foundation, now folded into the Chicago Foundation for Women, JARC launched its Women in Manufacturing Program in 2009 to provide additional support to women looking to enter the field. The group hosts parenting and financial literacy sessions, organizes female alumni events for networking, and allows working mothers more flexibility in their training schedule.

“We’ve been much more intentional about marketing to women,” Brewer Johnson says. “A lot of times just putting a woman on a flyer or putting the name ‘Women in Manufacturing Program’ [on it] attracts women and they think, ‘OK, this is something that I could do,’ as opposed to seeing a flyer with a dude on it and you’re like, ‘Well . . . that’s not really for me.’ ” Indeed, it was a woman who got Williams, a mother of three, in the door—she says she learned about the opportunity from a fellow female welder.

Eight years after Brewer Johnson helped launch the program, women now make up nearly 20 percent of the enrollment of the Careers in Manufacturing Program. Seventeen aspiring female trade workers were in job training at the organization’s Ravenswood and Austin facilities last year; JARC expects to raise that number to 23 this year.

Credit: Olivia Obineme

On a weekday morning last July, the Ravenswood facility buzzed with the sound of heavy machinery slicing across shiny metal, which welders then melt down, faces hidden behind protective masks, as acetylene torches flicker on and off. The space is structured to simulate a real work environment; participants must clock in before reporting to their stations and wear necessary safety gear.

Williams’s desire to revisit her welding skills while she was in between jobs brought her to JARC, but she says that she wasn’t always encouraged to explore a career in the trades. Although she showed interest in shop classes in high school as she grew up on the southeast side, she was told that jobs in the field were being phased out, so she set her sights on a different dream. She says she loved the creative element of her career as a graphic designer but hated being cooped up in an office environment working for a company that made sprayers.

“I was just miserable, and everything just seemed to come too easy,” Williams says. “There was no challenge.” Once she started welding, she says, she became excited to go to work every day. Changing job sites, from hospitals to manufacturing plants, and the profession’s varied tasks such as demolition and installation layout push her to think creatively. Her only regret is that she wasn’t exposed to her true calling earlier in life.

“Welding is definitely one of those professions that they don’t tell girls about in school,” she says. “People that you look up to, your counselor and your teachers, they’re looking at you like, ‘No, you don’t want to do that. You wanna be a teacher or you wanna try to be a doctor.’ ”

Arlena Williams, a welder and one of only about 150 female members of Chicago’s Pipefitters Local 597, in front of a recent worksiteCredit: Olivia Obineme

These cultural biases sometimes seep into systemic hiring practices that have historically created barriers for women and people of color looking to enter the trades, says Jayne Vellinga, the executive director of JARC partner Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT). Not that there haven’t been attempts at reform. The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, for instance, required government-funded construction projects to hire women. But allegations of discrimination persisted into the 1990s, when, with the approval of the union representing them, female maintenance workers in Chicago were given reduced hours while most men continued to work a full week. In 2010, with the Great Recession in full swing, a committee set up to hire and retain female union carpenters in Chicago had its funding cut, further provoking charges that women were being overlooked for a dwindling number of available union jobs. Postrecession, women still represent less than 3 percent of the skilled labor workforce of more than 200,000 in Illinois, and only around 30 percent nationwide—and charges of bias aren’t limited to the trades. Last fall, the Service Employees International Union Local 1 called on Illinois AFL-CIO president Michael Carrigan to apologize for what the SEIU leaders called a “sexist mind-set toward women” after Carrigan criticized a female consultant who’d worked with the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Despite women’s mixed history with integrating into a traditionally masculine, union-heavy workforce, Vellinga says that of the 70 percent of graduates of the CWIT construction program who go on to cement careers in the field, “a vast majority” have been placed in union apprenticeships. However, she adds, some pathways to membership are more fruitful than others.

“As a rule of thumb, the more objective [the selection] process is, the more fair it is for women and people of color,” she says. While women do well on tests measuring technical skills, Vellinga explains, they’re more likely to be weeded out during interviews as the potential for implicit bias increases. Women can also run into trouble when attempting to obtain a letter of sponsorship from a contractor—a common practice in seeking union membership—as some contractors are still hesitant to hire women, she adds.

Regan Brewer Johnson, executive vice president of the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, which administers the Women in Manufacturing Program
Jayne Vellinga, executive director of Chicago Women in TradesCredit: Olivia Obineme

The administrators of Careers in Manufacturing—which is up and running in a second location in the west-side Austin neighborhood as of August 2017—lean on groups influential among the trades, such as CWIT, for union-related resources and assistance. “CWIT will let us know like, ‘Hey, this union is opening up. They’re taking applications this Saturday. Send your people,’ ” Brewer Johnson says. “That’s how we’ll send our folks over.”

Reflecting on her own union membership in Pipefitters Local 597, Williams says that the same gender dynamics surface on the job and in the hall. Her union has around 5,000 members, but she estimates that only 3 percent are women. According to Vellinga, women’s participation in construction apprenticeships averages around 6 percent.

Such a male-dominated setting can be a culture shock to some women, Williams says, and she’s heard her fair share of horror stories involving crude jokes in the workplace from female colleagues. Union jobs are built on relationships, she says, so if a hostile work environment leaves a woman with a poor reputation, albeit an unfair one, she may be blacklisted and lose future employment opportunities.

JARC’s Ravenswood facility is structured to simulate a real work environment; participants must clock in before reporting to their stations and wear necessary safety gear.
Credit: Olivia Obineme

Despite potential concerns about logging a complaint, nearly 4,000 sexual harassment charges were filed by manufacturing workers between 2005 and 2015 nationwide, according to a report from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. Using data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government body responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, the Center for American Progress lists the manufacturing industry as the field with the third-highest number of claims, following accommodation and food services and retail trade. While the analysis doesn’t break down harassment complaints by gender in each individual industry, reports filed by women make up 80 percent of the sample. Data isn’t readily available on those who identify as gender nonconforming, but the group notes that charges have been filed in nearly every industry and that harassment affects a variety of individuals across the labor force.

Even in circumstances when the treatment of women doesn’t reach the point of sexual harassment, those looking to break into the trades may still be left feeling unwelcome in what has traditionally been a sort of boys’ club. “As a woman, there’s always somebody there that’s trying to test you [to see if you’re up to the job],” Williams says. That can make it difficult to trust male coworkers who may be ostensibly offering help at a job site, she says. Exacerbating the problem, Vellinga adds, is that “there are still a lot of contractors out there that aren’t necessarily giving women a fair shake in terms of hiring them or training them on the job once they’re there.” Without the same level of support as their male colleagues guaranteed to them by law, female workers may fall behind the learning curve, deepening inequality in the field.

To combat this problem and to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, feels comfortable in the workplace, members of the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues (among them CWIT) have pushed the Department of Labor to update equal employment opportunity and affirmative action regulations that had remained static since being enacted in 1978. Last month, new apprenticeship regulations were finally released by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment & Training Administration, adding sexual orientation, disability, age, and genetic information as protected categories for workers. Apprenticeship sponsors also must “post information about how to file complaints of discrimination” and “implement anti-harassment measures, including providing anti-harassment training”—a policy win for tradeswomen nationwide, and what CWIT sees as a step in the right direction.

Credit: Olivia Obineme

“Some people are having early 21st century experiences out there, and other people are reliving 1975,” Vellinga says, encouraging women to fight for their right to work in the trades. “You have to be a good advocate for yourself, you can’t be passive.”

Four years after graduating from JARC, Williams is heeding that advice and encouraging other women to do the same. “I feel like if I love what I do, I shouldn’t allow people to chase me away from my job,” she says. “We often scare ourselves from this environment because it’s predominantly men, but these same things can happen to you at any type of job.”

Brewer Johnson says the industry is learning to embrace its female colleagues. As JARC graduates are placed at different companies, they become advocates for the women who follow in their footsteps. Internally company cultures are shifting, she says, and female manufacturers are walking examples of what opportunities a career in the trades can offer women—and what women bring to the industry in return.

Credit: Olivia Obineme

Williams says she loves her job “more than she’s ever loved anything.” It’s given her full medical benefits, as well as the ability to start a savings account and a college fund for her daughter.

“This is the type of feeling I’ve been looking for,” she says—and she’s not letting go.   v