America's 'manliest' industries now compete for women

But there's still resistance within some trades

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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 two percent of the group’s 130,000 North American members are women.

“The whole world is suffering the baby boomer retirement tsunami,” said the union’s president, Eric Dean. “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 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 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.

In the manly world of construction, women have felt pressure to play down femininity. The arrival of maternity leave, said Vicki O’Leary, a veteran journeywoman who runs diversity efforts for the Iron Workers, sends a powerful message from industry leaders — that women belong there.

The union first considered adding the benefit last May, when a journeywoman stood up at a construction conference in Chicago and told the room she had miscarried on the job.

Bridget Booker, 36, said she was afraid to tell her boss she was pregnant. She didn’t want to be sent home and lose pay. So, she hid her belly under baggy coveralls and kept working on a bridge project in Peoria, Ill. She told no one when she lost the baby, three months into her pregnancy. She called in sick, and then returned to work less than 48 hours after her miscarriage.

“I did it to survive,” Booker said. “As a woman in the trade, you have to prove yourself every day. Not a day goes by that you don’t have to let them know that you’re up for the task.”

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