—by Susan Eisenberg
I still remember a few questions from my April 1978 interview to become an apprentice electrician in Boston.
“What does it mean that you’re from Cleveland?” Seven stern-faced men waited for a response. My mind raced, but I didn’t have a clue what I should say about growing up in Cleveland! Billy Swanson, my future apprenticeship director whose bluntness was already familiar to me, stepped in.
When I’d called five months earlier to find out about apprenticeship, he’d told me, “The unions don’t want you. The contractors don’t want you. We’ll call you if we need you.” When President Carter issued the affirmative action Executive Orders, I got a call from Billy to come in for an interview that same month.
He translated the committee’s question: “Are you an Indians fan or a Red Sox fan?” The answer was obvious –– forgive me Jimmy Piersall and Rocky Colavito!!!
Another question, “Do you understand this is a career, not a job?” –– also easy. Why else would someone go through a four-year apprenticeship, 40-hours/week of hard work and two nights a week of classes?! I was there for a career.
Though I think it was sincere at the time, from 30 years forward looking back, that question has a sting. The way our history has played out, it’s really women who should ask the industry, What’s being offered, a job or a career?
Most women don’t know that apprenticeships are not always regulated to offer everyone the full range of on-the-job experience to reach journeylevel well-qualified. That often there are two tracks: one for the contractor’s core workforce and one for short-term cheap labor. Merit seems less a factor than connections, and whether or not a person is thought to “fit in” (be a lot like everyone who’s already there) or have other vague qualities that are easy smokescreens for discrimination. Ironworker Gayann Wilkinson advises apprentices to go in with a Plan A and a Plan A.
A problem of having affirmative action monitoring (what little there is) focus on mega-projects, is that big jobs have more rote work. Female apprentices are often relegated –– not to ‘easy’ or ‘clean’ jobs –– but often to the heaviest, dirtiest or dullest tasks common to huge jobsites. As I recently heard a woman pipefitter disclose about her classmates who had spent their apprenticeships coring holes, “They’re not really employable as journeywomen.”
Early on I thought it was about having the right attitude. Important, of course! But I’ve come to think it’s largely about luck. The luck of having an ally who has some power and is willing to act on your behalf. And not having someone with power who unfairly blocks you: prevents you from learning a crucial skill, moving to the next pay grade, or receiving your journeycard. There needs to be a better system, with oversights and recourse. Leaders –– union officials and contractors –– need to be those strong allies that speak out for fairness.
Too many women who fight to get good training and make it through apprenticeships find discrimination in hiring and layoffs once they reach full rate. They don’t get a chance to work at their trade and to make the living they trained for. They drop out after a year or two because of unemployment at journeylevel.
OFCCP is developing new federal affirmative action regs, expected out this summer. They’ve been asked to include a separate goal for the employment of journeywomen. This will be critical.
The industry needs to keep the women they’ve trained to serve as role models, mentors, and advisors. And to deliver on a promise. When tradeswomen can retire with the same pensions as the men from their apprenticeship class, we’ll have proof of good faith effort.
Current affirmative action policies make it easy to employ female apprentices instead of journeywomen. That needs to change. Policies that fail to protect the careers of women who are already trained, are policies for short-term jobs masquerading as careers.