Journeywoman ironworker Bridget Booker dons her hard hat on a job site in East Peoria, Ill., on April 19. (David Zalaznik for The Washington Post)
Baby boomers are retiring in droves, vacating construction sites and body shops and 18-wheelers. Now America’s male-dominated industries, faced with a looming worker shortage, are trying to tap talent that has traditionally found such working conditions hostile: women.
The Iron Workers union this month leaped to the cutting edge of the effort, becoming the first building trades union to offer up to eight months of paid maternity leave to pregnant women and new moms. Not that many of their folks hauling rebar or scaling skyscrapers will take them up on the offer: Only 2 percent of the group’s 130,000 North American members are women.
“The whole world is suffering the baby boomer retirement tsunami,” the union's president, Eric Dean, said. “All the construction trades are in competition for capable people. Wouldn't it be a distinct advantage for us to be the first?”
By 2029, all of the baby boomers will be older than 65, meaning one-fifth of the U.S. population will have reached retirement age. Millennials, the workers who would replace them, aren’t as interested in pursuing careers in the trades. Enrollment in vocational education has dropped from 4.2 credits in 1990 to 3.6, according to the most recent data analysis from the National Education Association. The opioid epidemic, meanwhile, has zapped some of the male workforce because men are more likely than women to both use and overdose on illicit drugs.
“You hear about a lack of job readiness, an inability to pass a drug test,” said Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University and former chief economist for the Labor Department. “It makes sense that these employers regard women as a group that expands the applicant pool and at a higher-quality level.”
The Iron Workers want to attract and retain more journeywomen, who tend to quit at a higher rate, Dean said. The demographic represents a huge opportunity for growth, a way to bolster the future dues-paying membership.
“We have to innovate,” he said, “if we want different results”
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