By SABINE MARTIN – The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — As a child, Joanne Abbas rarely saw women in carpentry jobs. When she attended Kirkwood Community College for her carpentry certification 14 years ago, she was one of the few women in the program.
Today, Abbas, chief carpenter at Lammers Construction Service in Iowa City, is part of a growing population of women in the building trades.
“It was never encouraged or even discouraged when I was growing up, but nobody said, ‘Hey, you should consider working in the trades,'” she said. “I wanted to do something with my hands, I went to art school, but I needed a more practical profession.”
The number of women in the trades is increasing in the United States. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of women joining carpentry increased by 33.6% between 2016 and 2021.
Women in construction trades, including labourers, painters and paperlayers, pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, steam fitters and construction and building inspectors, increased by 32 .1% over the same period.
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In Cedar Rapids, female enrollment in Kirkwood trades programs has also increased.
Emily Logan, dean of Kirkwood’s industrial technology department, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette there were 76 female students out of 689 total students in the program in the last academic year.
“We see women with growing interest, but also an opportunity to join the workforce,” she said. “I also see a strong desire and commitment among our faculty and industry to diversify our student body and workforce.”
Logan said the Industrial Technology program increases inclusivity for female students by creating a Women in Technology group and providing a range of sizes for safety vests to suit each student.
Kim Fensterman, program manager of environmental and fire programs at Kirkwood, said she has noticed more women joining the wastewater management industry.
Fensterman said there are nine women currently active in Kirkwood’s wastewater management program and four more students starting in the fall.
“It’s exciting because they’re hired right out of our program,” she says.
The trades culture changed to accept women in the 30 years she worked in her position, Fensterman said.
“It’s just a stigma especially on career and technique, it’s always been a male dominated industry, even welding and CNC (computer numerical control machining technology) and sewage,” a- she declared. “Just innovating to bring women in was a bit unheard of 20 years ago.”
Tiffany VanTomme, continuing education instructor in welding at Kirkwood, said she has noticed an increase in the number of women joining the program – at least one woman per eight-week semester.
Women make up 5% of welders in the United States, according to the American Welding Society.
VanTomme said she only met one other female welder before her job at Kirkwood.
“Welding is no longer the heavy lifting job it used to be,” she said. “We have machines that no matter what kind of physical parameters you have, you don’t need to be able to list 100 pounds over your head anymore, so I think everyone should try a trade.”
Iowa City Neighborhood and Development Services and Kirkwood created the Homebuilding Confidence Course for Women. The course ran from March 2021 to January 2022.
A group of women, instructed by Abbas, demolished a city-owned house, remodeled a kitchen, installed flooring and learned to use tools during the course.
Zachary Johnson, a program developer in Kirkwood’s industrial technology department, helped organize the course. He said a women-only carpentry course will be available in September.
“The goal of this course is kind of the same, exposing women to subjects and skills they’ve never had the opportunity to learn,” he said.
Tracy Hightshoe, director of neighborhood and development services, said the course gave students insight into trades.
Neighborhood and Development Services helps with housing rehabilitation in Iowa City.
“I think a lot of them can do the job, they just need to know if they’re interested,” Hightshoe said. “The fact that (the course) is filling up so quickly, I think there’s a lot of interest in the class. It’s given the women the confidence to try things out at home.
Victoria Dabler, a student in the first construction course and program manager at Kirkwood, said she did not feel comfortable taking a construction course before this course was offered.
There aren’t many encouraging environments for women to learn trades, especially in construction, she said.
Dabler plans to show off her skills to help her mom with some home improvement projects soon.
“As an independent young woman, I wanted to learn the skills to do basic repairs around the house, renovations, etc., because women aren’t socialized growing up to learn those skills,” Dabler said.
“Knowledge is power.” Abbas, of Lammers Construction, said. “The more you learn, the more you can do and the more you can handle.”
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