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Skilled tradeswomen encourage the next generation of Rosie the Riveters

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Betty Davis works at Melton Machine & Control Co.

Betty Davis, Melton Machine & Control Co.'s mechanical engineering detail lead, works May 3 in her 13th year with Melton and 35th year in the manufacturing industry. In the company's manufacturing sector, there are 14 women and 120 total employees.

Five Franklin County and St. Louis area tradeswomen made up the Four Rivers Career Center’s April 27 panel on women in trades careers. Instead of listing female role models, all of them said men had inspired them to join their fields.

“It’s not a path that most young ladies even consider for a career,” panelist Eli Knight said during the April 27 forum. She works as the preconstruction and project manager for Clayton-based Green Street Building Group. “So it’s a personal initiative of mine to help inspire young ladies who are thinking about this career.”

The electrical engineering, construction and metal workers formed the panel at a significant moment. The skilled trade industry is preparing for a 10-million person labor shortage by 2023, according to the nonprofit Bridging America’s Gap, because there aren’t trained workers to replace the aging workforce.

This means “there probably hasn’t been a better time than now” for women to join the industry, said Dr. Richard Hudanick, dean of the Career and Technical Education department at East Central College. Advocacy group Women of HVAC compared today to the Rosie the Riveter era, explaining that women are needed to join the field and fill vacant jobs.

However, the pandemic has added some complications: The female-to-male employment gap is the highest it has been since 2000, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Women are being forced out of the national workforce at rates staggeringly higher than men — nearly 450,000 people higher — though women only make up 48 percent of all workers.

No child care means no workers

“We all know there are just not enough women in construction, period, and women in the trades,” said Beth Barton, a board member of Missouri Women in Trades, which assists with retention in the St. Louis-area construction trades.

She said this at another forum, the National Association of Women in Construction, which was held May 1 for Midwestern trades workers.

As a panelist, Barton, who is a superintendent at St. Louis-based Tarlton Corp., said women make up 3 percent of U.S. trades employees. In her St. Louis-area union, “one half of 1 percent of all carpenters are women.”

Meanwhile, she has seen some of her fellow tradeswomen struggle to maintain their employment during the pandemic, she said, particularly because they haven’t been able to find child care.

“We’ve seen tradeswomen that have just said, ‘I’m out, right now, I am out’ because they literally can’t leave their house,” she said. She said she knew of three workers who had done this.

The lack of child care facilities is one of the main reasons more women have dropped out of the labor force in the pandemic than men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review. Women are statistically more likely to stay home and care for their children.

Single parents were hit the hardest by the pandemic, BLS reported, and Barton said about 40 to 45 percent of tradeswomen in her union are single mothers.

Women constituted 56 percent of all workforce exits since the pandemic began despite making up less than half the workforce, according to McKinsey & Co. The study found 100 percent of all workforce exits in December were women.

The other main cause of the gender-based workforce gap is the type of industries shutting down during COVID. Industries predominantly employing women, such as hospitality and retail, struggled and closed, according to BLS.

This would mean male-dominated industries stayed in relatively better shape. Despite their own supply chain, job retention and other COVID-19-related issues, this is the case for local skilled trades jobs, Hudanick said.

Generations collide

“The more that we can get diverse thinking and people looking at it from a different perspective, the better chance we have of solving tougher problems,” said Glenn Archer, Melton Machine & Control Co.’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Of the 79 building trades students at Four Rivers, three are women, according to a pamphlet accompanying the Four Rivers forum.

Of the 32 students in ECC’s industrial engineering and technology program, one is a woman, Hudanick said. Over the past three years, there have been no female HVAC students, though the course usually has about 80 pupils per year. Of all the manufacturing courses, the welding program features the most women, who have made up about 5 percent of the class.

The programs are preparing students for the workforce in Franklin County, which relies heavily on trades jobs, Hudanick said. Manufacturing, warehousing and construction jobs form about 30 percent of the local economy.

Therefore, women like Melton employee Betty Davis help support the town. The mechanical engineering detail lead has been with the company since 2008 and in the manufacturing industry since 1986.

She is one of the company’s four female engineers and 14 female employees. There are over seven times more men at 106.

“I grew up with four brothers, so I don’t mind being around guys,” Davis said. “It didn’t bother me. I’m kind of a tomboy anyway, so I fit in.”

She said she keeps at her job because she loves its fast pace. In describing the work environment, she said, “You work hard, you get the job done, you get it out the door, and then the next one’s ready to go.”

Although Van-K Wheels employee Nicole Ritrovato only has been in the manufacturing industry since December, she attested to the intensity of the labor. She said maybe that’s why women have been separated from the industry; it goes against stereotypes.

“It’s very demanding, but I mean, if you have your mind set to it, it becomes easier with time,” she said.

Women can do the jobs, and they can do them well, the speakers at the Four Rivers forum said. Panelist and sheet metal worker Sheena Jones said that’s why they needed to meet and why they hope they can inspire other women to join the field.

“Women can do this type of work in the field,” Jones said. “It’s not just a man’s job.”