Women In The Trades

National Women's Build Day: What's It Like To Be A Woman In The Skilled Trades?

Erin Wallace
Sr. Writer

Posted 03/02/2020

It's been common knowledge for decades that men make up the majority of people employed in the skilled trades. In construction, for example, men make up 90.1% of the workforce, according to 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In HVAC, the percentage is even higher, coming in somewhere around 98%.

Women are less commonly seen in the skilled trades for a variety of reasons. But the numbers are growing — in HVAC, for example, women now make up about 2% of the total number of HVAC workers in the United States, but around 2009, that number was a mere 0.6%.

With such a high demand for skilled trades jobs, there's never been a better time for women to consider a career in construction, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, or wherever their interests in the trades lie.

To gain a better perspective on what it's like to be a woman in the skilled trades, we recently spoke to Kelly Yontef, a construction worker in the New Haven, Connecticut, area who is killing it in her chosen skilled trade career while raising two daughters and working part time in her original chosen career: cognitive-behavioral therapist.

Read on to find out her perspective on what it's like to work in an industry that's been largely dominated by men.

Generation T: What is your current job within the trades?

Kelly: I work as a carpenter. I work with other carpenters and other tradesmen, and I also take on my own jobs sometimes. That's the thing that deters people: if you don't go work for a builder, you have to find work. I work for a general contractor, and he is the source of most of the work I do. We do a lot of finish carpentry, including trim work and molding, and also do any sort of carpentry that the job requires. Right now we're rebuilding a garage that's rotted out. Many carpenters don't specialize in any one thing anymore — it used to be that if you were a framer, all you'd do is frame, but people are diversifying their skills across carpentry. I couldn't survive if I only did finish carpentry, and so I've learned to do many things.

I work for contractors on an as-needed basis, so I can commit to things as they come up and balance my construction jobs with my other job as a cognitive-behavioral therapist. I can juggle hours and pick jobs that I have time to work on.

Being a carpenter is what I always wanted to be. It wasn't something 20 years ago that little girls did. They didn't grow up to become carpenters.  I have two daughters that I bring to work with me whenever I can, and they're really interested. It’s very important to me that they grow up and do whatever sort of work interests them. I never want them to feel confined to certain jobs because of their gender. 

Generation T: How did you get started in the trades?

Kelly: Well, after I graduated from college and graduate school, I took a job as a therapist. While I truly enjoy the work, I was climbing the walls after two years of that, and so, then, I decided to embark on a career in the trades...but let me back up a little.

I grew up on a farm surrounded by men who did this type of work. I was banging nails as soon as I could walk. As I got older and began thinking about a career, carpentry was not one that I considered. I didn’t think women could become carpenters, so as a young woman that always loved school, it seemed that going to a traditional 4-year college was the right direction to move in. 

College was great, and I am thankful for that experience, but deep down I always knew that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to work with my hands as my father did. So, after I graduated from graduate school and I had a master's degree, I found I still wasn't completely happy sitting behind a desk. I decided that this could be the time that I could get into carpentry. So, I bought a fixer-upper house and got in way over my head. Along the way, I met with contractors and subcontractors and worked with them, and then eventually they would offer for me to come work with them. So, then, I'd do that 3 days a week. I love it. I think it's what I'm programmed to do. I don't think I'm programmed to sit behind a desk all the time.

Generation T: What is your second job?

Kelly: My other job is as a cognitive-behavioral therapist.  I work with adults with autism. I have worked with adults with autism for 13 years, and I’m extremely thankful for that.  I’m so glad that I’m able to balance these two jobs because they are both very important to me and have helped me to grow into the person I am today. 

Generation T: There's a myth out there that Generation T is trying to bust, it's that you only go into the trades if you're not smart or you don't have other options. What do you say to that?

Kelly: It's such a myth. Some of the smartest people I know work in trades. This isn't easy work, and there's this idea that it's just banging nails. Carpentry is extremely complicated. I use math skills and problem solving skills every day.  I have to have good communication skills so that I can work as part of a team. 

Generation T: Why don't you think more women get into the trades?

Kelly: I was on a job this morning, and I was talking with some of the men about this. I come from a family where my father knew how to do everything on our farm. As a little girl, I had a tool belt and a hammer, and I was always watching what was going on and learning. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity while growing up to watch people do this sort of work and follow their lead.

To answer your question, I'm not sure; I don't know the answer. I guess it is unexpected. It's not something that people have historically expected girls to go and do. I wonder if it's that young girls are not getting enough support. I wonder about little girls who don't have a dad like I did that was willing to teach me. These are the girls and women that it’s so important to reach and say, "Hey, this can be for you.  You're not settling." I don't feel like in my career as a carpenter I've ever settled. I've had to push myself beyond what I would have expected out of my life otherwise.

So many people see it as a settling job, but to me, it doesn't feel like that. It's been the opposite. It's so gratifying, and I don't feel like I've missed out or that I don't use my brain. I use my brain like crazy in this job, including math I never thought I would use.

Generation T: What are three things that you love about being a woman in trades?

Kelly: For me, it's hard to think of myself as a woman in the trades. Most people don't treat me as a woman at this point. Every once in a while, I walk into a job and people look surprised to see me or may make a comment about being surprised to see a woman on the job, but that doesn’t really happen much anymore.

And I think that's what people don't understand. If you go into a job and you stay focused and you use your skills, you're no different than anybody else. You become not one of the guys but one of the people. I have experienced situations where men have made pretty sexist comments, but 99.9% of the time, it's not like that. I show up for work just like everyone else, and after a bit of small talk and some planning for the day, we go to work. 

Maybe the best part for me is when people say, "Oh you're a carpenter. That's so cool!" And I always say, "Well anyone can be a carpenter. You don't have to be a man." So, I like that part of it. I like educating people. I'm lucky I grew up learning those skills, but any woman or man can go to carpentry school and learn to do this. Even expert carpenters I know take classes to learn new skills. You always have to be growing your skills.

There are so many awesome things about working in the trades. I think people sometimes have this stereotype that it's hard for women, that men are mean to women on job sites, and it's really not true, at least in my experience. People can be mean to each other anywhere, at any job or even just driving down the road. Once they realize you're not just a pretty face and you're there to work, people respect you.

Generation T: What kind of unique skills do you think women have to be able to work in the trades?

Kelly: First of all, you're always going to need men on jobs. It's hard work. I think I bring a lot of the critical thinking, problem-solving pieces. I don't think I get hired for my muscles is what I'm saying. I think I'm strong enough, but women can be wonderful problem solvers and often possess a strong critical thinking ability that allows them to be able to step back and say, okay, let's think of another way we can solve this problem.

And that's a big piece about carpentry. If you're not building something new, you have a job because someone has a problem. They've got a leak, they need new doors and windows or maybe they want to figure out how to add another bathroom. They depend on you to figure out how to remedy their problem. We might spend an hour as a team problem solving that and figuring out how to make this better, so that when we rebuild it, this either doesn't happen again or we make the client’s vision come to life. Many women have a super strength in the area of problem-solving, and problem-solving is a huge part of construction.

Generation T: What is a typical day like for you?

Kelly: Trades start early. I am an early bird, so generally, the earliest we can get started is better. We arrive at the job, greet everyone, spend about a half-hour figuring out what's the plan for the day, and then, we work. I like working as part of a team. Certainly, a part of carpentry is that dirty demo work. It's not always building something new. Generally, we get an assignment on what we're going to do and work on, and then, we get cut loose.

Generation T: How long is your day then?

Kelly: Sometimes in the summer, days are long, like 16-hour days, well into the dark, but generally speaking, a lot of the carpenters I know are at work at 7:30 in the morning and then on their way home by 3.

We often work weekends, and late into the day because when you've ripped apart someone's kitchen, they want it back, and you want to give it back to them sooner rather than later.

Generation T: There's a certain degree of life interruption sometimes, and an urgency it sounds like, for your customers.

Kelly: Yes, exactly. When you are working in someone’s home, you disrupt their life. I like to get things put back together for them quickly. Carpentry's a quick-paced job. It's not all standing around eating donuts...even though we do sometimes stand around and eat donuts.

But seriously, that urgency comes with a real sense of accomplishment. When you can go into someone's home and turn something around very quickly for them, and they say, "Oh my gosh, this is amazing!" and you get to be part of that excitement for them, it's very gratifying.

Generation T: So, you do new construction as well as renovation?

Kelly: It's mostly renovation because there's not much land left for new construction in this area.  We do renovations and a lot of repairs. Just the other day, I had someone call me who is selling their house, and he had this whole list of things for me to do, like handyperson stuff. Fix the doorbell, and he has a chimney cap that needs a repair. Or someone else might have a broken pane of glass in their wooden door. Can you fix it? Lots of small jobs. Jobs that take like four hours, and you're done. For someone who has another job or another career, it's such a wonderful thing. I can schedule those in whenever I want to.

Generation T: Can you speak to job availability in the trades?

Kelly: There's a lot of work in the world of construction, especially on the smaller end. I work with people all the time who can't find skilled young people anymore. They've all gone in a different direction.

It took me 15 years to pay off my college debt, but I didn't even know this was an acceptable option when I was a kid. It took until I was an adult that I was motivated to find something different to do. Certainly, carpentry is my passion.

I'm sure there are so many people just like me, sitting in a college classroom just because it's the expected next step.

I think it's important for young kids to recognize that this isn't a poor man's job. There's a lot of money to be made in trades. If you get good at it and you are motivated to work, you can make a very good living. This is a solid way to live.

You have the opportunity in a trade to push it as far as you want to go. If you want to continue seeking work or if you're a young kid who's a plumber and you want to get out there on the weekends, there's work. As much as you want to look for it, there's work.

Generation T: What do you want other women thinking about getting into the skilled trades to know?

Kelly: I want them to know that it is a place where a woman belongs. Your gender does not keep you out of this field. Women belong on a construction site just as much as men. Women have the same skills as men. Just because you're a man or a woman doesn't make you better at it. In fact, you might be a woman and not be good at it, but it's not because of your gender.

Men, for the most part, like having women on construction sites in my experience. It may change the dynamic a little but generally, it is for the better.  Sometimes, there's an initial shock, but after a short period of time, you feel welcome there just like anyone else.

Generation T: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Any closing thoughts?

Kelly: Women and young women should know that women belong there [in the trades]. Over the years, I've found that sometimes clients really like having a woman on the job. They say they feel comfortable and that it's nice having a woman on the crew. There's nothing separating women from the men except their own reservations.

I think if they get out there and see what it's like and try it out, I believe that they would find that most men are happy to have women there. They just want someone who does good work. They're not worried about your gender. They're worried about your skills.

Carpentry is about skills and how hard you're willing to work. I've never had anyone refuse to help me when I need it or refuse to work with me because I’m a woman. I feel at home on a construction site. I don't feel like people judge me or think anything different of me based on my gender. I think most women, after they get their foot in the door, would agree.

Once you establish that this is your career and this is what you do, it's wonderful.

Are you a woman thinking about a career in the trades? Check out Generation T's job and training opportunities in the trades to help you get started.