Trades discuss challenges of attracting women and minorities

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There are ample job opportunities in skilled trades for the area’s women and minorities, but promotion of the available positions is not always evident.


That was the acknowledgement Monday by a group of speakers from trade unions and the state Department of Transportation, who said there are a variety of reasons for the situation, one that they’re trying to remedy.


The discussions were part of a three-hour minority and female employment information forum at PONY League headquarters in Washington Square. The event was sponsored by state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, and state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg.


Neuman said at the outset of the forum, which drew many high school guidance counselors and community representatives, including Washington Mayor Brenda Davis, that he was prompted to hold the event after learning from a constituent that he noticed a construction site that had no minorities or women working on it.


Monday’s event was the third that Neuman sponsored over the past two years. The others focused on career opportunities in the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM instruction, in high school curriculums.


As for opportunities that require a skilled trade, “We don’t have enough minorities, and we don’t have enough women in these jobs,” Neuman said.


Jason Koss, director of industry relations for the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania, noted that a number of large PennDOT highway projects such as the recently completed flyover at the south junction of Interstates 70 and 79, the Findlay Connector and the recently funded Southern Beltway project, provide jobs for large numbers of people who have skilled trades.


But getting a job requires someone to apply to one of the trade unions and take an entry exam focused on basic math and communication skills. If applicants achieve a high enough score, they receive an interview with Koss and others who determine which trade school would be appropriate for successful applicants.


Koss, whose group works with trade unions and contractors involved in construction of highways, airport runways, locks and dams, bridges and utility projects in 33 counties, acknowledged that across the counties, union heavy highway jobs had 9 percent minority and 3 percent women employees. Skilled trade apprenticeship programs currently have 12 percent minorities and seven percent women enrolled.


“It takes time to change these numbers,” he said.


Koss also acknowledged that while the jobs pay well, there are some challenges, including working in all types of weather, the need for reliable transportation and the requirement of working in a variety of locations.


“You could be in an urban area like Washington for two weeks, then the next two weeks, you could be in a rural area like Avella,” he said. He also acknowledged that the apprenticeship trade programs, whose training requires a multi-year learning commitment, receive little recognition, even though they pay the apprentices, who learn many of their skills on the job.


Another problem with the line of work is that it is sometime misunderstood by people who successfully earn jobs, but leave after a year or two because they don’t like the working conditions.


To remedy that, Koss said CAWP has developed “Future Road Builders,” a virtual highway construction pre-apprenticeship program that lets participants learn about the roles a carpenter, cement mason, laborer, heavy equipment operator and others play in a construction projects.


Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, noted that the average age of an apprentice is 27, noting that many people attend a trade school after college, or after losing a job.


He said career and technology schools are a good place for high school students to receive a grounding in a trade.


“Builders like people to go to apprenticeship schools,” which he said last from three to five years, but are tuition-free for successful applicants.


Like Koss, Fincke said the decision by many high schools to end driver training courses has had a negative impact on skilled trades, since all require apprentices to have reliable transportation.


The trades are open to women, but it’s often a tough sell, he said.


“It’s tough to get women to apply to our trades, but there isn’t a trade out there that doesn’t have women working in it,” he said.


Fincke acknowledged that grades are important, but trade schools tend to focus more on high school students’ attendance records, noting that attendance is an indicator of whether someone will show up for work every day.


William Kerney Jr., chief of the contract compliance division for PennDOT in Harrisburg, said his department works closely with all of its prime contractors to ensure that equal opportunity requirements are being met, but acknowledged that while employers will try many ways to find minorities and women to work on a project, including getting in touch with community leaders where they’re working, they often come up empty.


“We have to do a better job of communicating the opportunities that exist,” he said.


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