Retention Resources for Helping Women Succeed in Apprenticeship

Diverse women and men of color in trades apprenticeships are less likely to succeed over the long term in trades careers as a result of barriers such as harassment and discrimination. The following resources are designed to help training providers and employers better understand these obstacles and how to counteract them in pursuit of a stronger team and more diverse workforce.

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Retention Obstacle 1:  Discrimination

Even after being accepted into an apprenticeship, women are still likely to encounter discrimination.  When classroom instruction or on-the-job training disproportionately benefits white males, diverse apprentices become frustrated and feel like they are not valued as workers.  Unequal hiring practices, job assignments, and layoff choices all contribute to low retention rates of female and diverse male apprentices. “Checkerboarding,” the effect of moving diverse apprentices with abnormally high frequency between job sites in order to meet targeted hiring goals, can reduce the skill development and advancement of diverse women and men of color in the trades.

Retention Obstacle 2:  Harassment

Although strides are being made in the trades to combat it, gender- and race-based harassment remains a serious contributor to high attrition rates of diverse apprentices from the trades.  Female apprentices are less likely to feel safe, welcome, or valued on job sites where harassment is tolerated.

Retention Obstacle 3:  Lack of Industry Networks

Studies demonstrate that interpersonal relationships and informal networks are important for apprentices to obtain work and remain steadily employed throughout their apprenticeships. While many programs operate from an “out-of-work list” in which individuals who have been out of work the longest are the first to be contacted when new jobs become available, the industry frequently deviates from this protocol.  Successful apprentices draw on personal relationships and networking to stay employed.   Because of implicit cultural biases, female and diverse male apprentices are less likely to form the relationships and informal networks that result in consistent employment.

Retention Obstacle 4:  Inconsistent Employment

Apprentices that are not assigned enough work to make a living for themselves will find other employment opportunities more attractive, even if those jobs have lower hourly pay.  Female and diverse male apprentices are less likely to be consistently employed due to discrimination, harassment, and lack of industry networks and interpersonal relationships.

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The following action steps are designed to help apprenticeship training providers retain more women and diverse men in trades apprenticeship.

  1.  Hold a New Apprentice Orientation

Provide an orientation or “boot camp” for new apprentices that helps them prepare for industry expectations and culture around attendance, performance, appropriate work behavior and work ethic, as well as deepen their understanding of the trade and job site environment.

  1. Work with Employers to Create A Welcoming Job Site Environment

Assist your employers to create a respectful and welcoming job site environment, including defining expectations of employers who have the privilege of using apprentices, teaching about best practices for training all apprentices with a full range of skills, and providing employers with information about the economic costs of apprentice termination. (A 2009 study of apprentice retention in the Cincinnati area estimated that apprentice attrition was costing local industry over $7 million annually).  A job site that helps new apprentices feel welcome, confident in what is expected of them, a part of the crew, and knowledgeable about how to work safely, gains a more productive worker.

  1. Ensure that Women & Diverse Male Apprentices Receive Equitable Skills Training

Make sure your employers provide apprentices with the opportunity to learn more technical aspects of the trade on the job; carefully monitor to make sure women and diverse male apprentices don’t solely do “grunt work” and are learning the practical on-the-job skills that lead to being a valued worker. Diverse apprentices may find themselves relegated to sweeping up, moving materials or doing simple repetitive tasks. In order for apprentices to become good hands, employable, and confident in their skills, they need to learn more technical aspects of the trade. While it may not be practical to train every apprentice on every aspect of the trade on the job, apprenticeship programs can set the standard for on-the-job training and carefully plan with their employers for all apprentices to grow in their skills.

  1. Create a Clear Way for Apprentices to Get Help for Issues or Concerns

Make sure apprentices know where to get help for issues or concerns that might arise. Apprentices need to know who to go to if they experience difficulties. This could be an apprentice rep, the apprenticeship coordinator, an apprentice liaison, apprenticeship instructors, a job steward, an employee assistance program or a mentorship program. In general, women and diverse male apprentices have trouble speaking up for themselves and don’t want to rock the boat by complaining.  It helps them to clearly spell out the safe and proper channels to receive help when the need arises.

  1. Monitor Inconsistent Work for Women Apprentices

With lay-off choices sometimes being the responsibility of a mid-level foreman or superintendent, unintended biases or personal friendships may influence unknowingly their lay-off choices, resulting in fewer work hours for apprentices from underrepresented groups. Monitor the amount of work that diverse apprentices are assigned. If you find that female and diverse male apprentices are getting laid off sooner and thus not getting the hours to advance, have a discussion with your employers about equitable work.

  1. Foster Relationships & Mentoring for Women Apprentices

Most apprentices work in a teamwork or crew environment. Thus, an apprentice’s ability to have a good working relationship with their co-workers is critical for the apprentice to learn, perform and be successful. When the relationship-building is left to chance or to the apprentice, barriers of race and gender may get in the way of the apprentice becoming a true part of the work crew.

  1. Connect Apprentices to Supportive Services

If they have children, female apprentices are more likely than their male peers to shoulder the majority of childcare responsibilities.  Similarly, women entering the trades are more likely to be coming from lower wage jobs than new male apprentices. In general, women have less free time and money at their disposal and can benefit immensely from supportive services such as lodging, per diem, ground transportation, child care provision or reimbursement, book and class fees, and necessary work clothing and tools of the trade.  Collaborating with workforce development organizations to connect apprentices to existing supportive services can be a valuable retention tool.

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Mentoring is an established industry practice that is especially effective in helping women and diverse men succeed in apprenticeship.  The following mentorship elements could contribute to apprentices from underrepresented groups gaining the crew connections and social guidance needed to develop a long term career in the trades.

  1. New worker job site orientations

Request your apprentices receive thorough orientation to the job site and its expectations on the first day or week on the job.  This orientation should cover how to be safe, attendance expectations, appropriate work behavior, etc.  It is a best practice for workers giving the orientation to follow a checklist – sometimes job site expectations are so assumed by the established worker that they are not communicated to new workers.

  1. Ensure that new workers are assigned a “go-to” journey worker

The established worker may not work every day with new apprentices, but assigning that worker the responsibility to help the new workers understand expectations, get questions answered, be safe, get settled in can help to create relationships on the job site from day one on the job.

  1. Encourage or support culturally or gender-specific mentoring for women and minority apprentices

Some examples of mentoring support groups include the IBEW Electrical Minority Caucus, Carpenter’s Sisters in the Brotherhood, and tradeswomen organizations such as Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. These groups provide a chance to learn survival and success skills in a safe environment from successful, cultural peers.

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