The Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) wants to meet workforce shortages by tapping into an employee market previously unreached. But getting women and people of color in the door is only half the battle. Retaining those prospective workers is an equally important part of the discussion.

IMPACT’s 2022 conference took place late last month in San Francisco and included a breakout session on recruiting women and people of color to the industry. Panelists included Vicki O’Leary, director of diversity/general organizer at IMPACT; Heather Kurtenbach, business agent with Iron Workers Local 86 Seattle; Ariane Hegewisch, senior research fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; Mike Anderson, business manager with Iron Workers Local 46L; and James Owens, training and grant specialist for Iron Workers International, and a member of Iron Workers Local 86 Seattle.

Combatting the Workforce Shortage

Pete Hayes of Red Cedar Steel, moderator, opened the discussion by saying construction has “basically ignored” women and people of color in regards to recruitment. With a workforce shortage totaling millions of people, according to Hayes, industry leaders are looking for how that work will be completed. One option is tapping into that untapped market.

“We want to actively open those doors,” he said. “And more importantly for trades and the iron workers, to have a broader range of people, increase our pool of recruits for our apprenticeship programs and allow more opportunities for these workers in these high-paying positions.”

Owens said the discussion around recruiting and retaining women and people of color is happening nationwide, and that registered apprenticeships are one of the most effective tools available to accomplish that mission.

“One of the tools we have is our apprenticeship standards, which are already structured to be inclusive and address some of these things we’re talking about as far as equal opportunity for employment and things of that nature. The registered apprenticeship programs already are set up to do this work very well,” Owens said, adding that dialogue is key.

Owens also addressed opportunities for pre-apprenticeship programs and associated grant funding that supplements and supports such programs. He said those programs see potential apprentices, with a focus on women and people of color, go through three to four weeks in training with direct entry into apprenticeships upon completion. Then there are the supportive services, such as workforce development and the National Urban League, with which apprenticeship programs can partner.

Relaying Industry Opportunities

Kurtenbach then told attendees of the 16-week, pre-apprenticeship program at the women’s correctional facility in Washington state. Those eligible for the Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) must be interviewed, close to their release date, and infraction free, among other requirements. The program also teaches money management and soft skills such as showing up every day and working as part of a team.

“We’ve had such success with these women that we’ve actually changed our apprenticeship standards to read that they don’t have to wait until the next evaluation day, which may be a month or two,” Kurtenbach said. “Once these women are out, they need to get to work right away. Getting them to work right away really cuts out the recidivism rate.”

Anderson said women and people of color want to work, but improving the workforce won’t happen unless those prospective employee pools are tapped. Anderson said, for example, some direct entry programs provide women and people of color with the necessary skills to have a career and not just a job. He also mentioned outreach efforts, such as those at churches and high schools, which also serve to build relationships within the community.


But attraction remains only half the battle, with hurdles remaining for retention. Anderson said baby boomers and Generation X likely have family members employed in the trades to answer questions. But that isn’t necessarily the case for younger generations.

“Who do they turn to?” Anderson suggested connecting that person with a seasoned veteran of the job, adding that mentors can fill that role of a knowledgeable family member. “If somebody feels excluded from the project, they’re not going to buy in to the project. If somebody feels included, they buy in, they stay longer and the retention level is elevated.”

Hegewisch said in the past five years, 100,000 women, many of color, have joined the construction industry. However, she said there is too much focus on bringing them in and not enough on keeping them there; approximately half say they are thinking about leaving.

Hegewisch said a recent survey of 2,600 tradeswomen found that the majority of respondents feel they are treated equally, but a third said they are not treated equally in regards to advancement, and a quarter said they don’t feel they are treated equally when it comes to layoffs.

“I think we really need to focus there because it drives women out,” she said. “Almost three in 10 never get the right equipment, the right-sized gloves. That’s not only a health and safety issue, it’s a slap in the face.”

Women in the industry also feel that they are held to higher standards, while still facing additional challenges because of the cost of childcare. O’Leary said childcare during the pandemic rose 41%, with families spending up to 20% of their salaries on childcare.

“That is something that we need to work on and figure out,” she said.

The panel recommended mitigation options for those issues that included additional anti-harassment and mentorship training for foremen as well as possibly providing on-site childcare.

Hayes also said that contractors can do more to help with retention.

“I am going to take some of these great ideas back and implement them, and we’re going to do more as IMPACT on the board looking at superintendent training and foremen training programs … to make sure that there’s anti-harassment training in there and mentorship training and things of that nature, so we can do more.”