Then & Now: How Women in the Trades has Changed Over the Years

Emily Whittier is preparing a component of an engine for testing.

Emily Whittier was hired last term as a part-time instructional specialist in the non-destructive testing program at LBCC. She began working in the industry about 15 years ago when she found that her job as a hairdresser just wasn’t paying the bills.

“I had to figure something else out,” Whittier said. “I got a job at Selmet through a temp agency. I started out as an entry-level darkroom attendant and I really liked it. It was easy, fun and even though I initially made less money per hour, I was making more because I always got 40 or more hours a week.”

Whittier, who also works as a level II radiographer with Pacific Cast Technologies, makes about $29 an hour now. She worked at Selmet for 11 years and received on-the-job training that enabled her to move forward in the field and obtain her level I and level II radiographer certifications.

Whittier is one of only two women employed in academic roles in Advanced Manufacturing and Transportation Technology (not including the culinary arts department, which also falls under this division). Even though this seems like a small percentage, just three years ago there were none.

This year is the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the United States the right to vote, and women’s equality has come a long way in these last 100 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of December 2019 women made up over half of the U.S. labor force for the first time in history.

Women outnumber men in many fields such as finance (52.6%), education (74.8%) and health services (78.1%). But in many of the fastest-growing and highest-paying fields like construction and manufacturing women make up only 10.3% and 29.4%.

Even though women began entering the workforce in large numbers during the 1960s, jobs in the trades didn’t start opening up to women until the late 1970s.

An article published in the April 26, 1978 edition of the LBCC Commuter titled “Women Explore Jobs that Are Traditionally Male” referred to a program called “Women in Non-traditional Roles,” which gave “women a chance to explore careers other than the traditional secretary, waitress, nurse or sales clerk.”

Women who participated in the program had the opportunity to “get exposure to education as they learn some basic skills in woodworking, welding, metal working, tools, blueprint reading, auto body repair, electronic fabrication, and electronics.”
Or, if the women had enough background, they could “enter more challenging classes such as college algebra, physics, third-term English composition and creative writing.”

The LBCC of today looks much different than it did back in 1978. Females enrolling in trades programs are no longer a new or novel concept. Today, females make up 54% of LBCC’s student body and are present, although in much smaller numbers than men, in every trade program on campus. One of the trade programs where females make up the largest percentage is Non-Destructive Testing.

“Females consistently make up about 20-25% of our program,” said Scott Ballard, an NDT instructor. “The days of balking at hiring a female are gone. I think it’s a great career path for women. There are lots of jobs and I believe it will be to their advantage, not disadvantage, to be female as the industry becomes more gender blind.”

“I started as an engineering student and found NDT because it’s under that umbrella,” said Megan Close-Schibig, a third-year student at LBCC. “It’s very hands-on work with a high demand for workers. It’s detailed work and women are detail-oriented, so often women are a better fit.”

“I really like creative problem-solving,” said Marietta Glazner, a first-year NDT student. “This is a way to have a job that is hands-on but is also intellectual.”

The percentage of females in the program is reflective of what can be found in our local industry. According to Rick Palmer, Selmet’s HR manager, 17% of their non-administrative employees are female. Although the highest number of females can be found in radiography, there are women present in almost every area, including welding, dimensional inspection, and quality control.

Caitlin Ditullio, a welding process engineer at Selmet, is one such female.

“I started at Selmet eight months ago after I graduated from OSU with a degree in chemical engineering,” Ditullio said. “My main duties are to oversee the qualification process of our welders and leading efforts to reduce weld-based defects.”

Ditullio’s role is more supervisory than hands-on, but is an example of how females are being integrated into all aspects of the manufacturing industry.

Welding is another area that consistently has females enrolled in their program. They are also the only manufacturing department that can boast of having a female instructor.

“There are more female welders now than there used to be, but there is still room to grow,” said Marc Rose, a welding instructor. “I think a lot of females are probably afraid to enter a typically male-dominated trade, but women make better welders because they have better hand-eye coordination and they’re better at attention to detail.”

Women make up just 16.6% of workers in fabricated metals product manufacturing in the United States, making it one of the more male-dominated trades. But that doesn’t stop women from seeing the benefits of a career in welding.

“I was a food and fermentation sciences major, and when I finished I ended up working at Fred Meyer,” said Charis Thompson, one of two female second-year welding students. “I wanted to do something else. I took a welding class in high school, and I remembered it was fun, so I looked into it and read that welding was headed for a retirement exodus. I thought as a woman in my 20’s I’d be an attractive employee.”

Thompson was initially a little nervous entering a male-dominated field, but it turned out to be the right fit for her.

“I’m glad I chose this field because it’s really fun. I like making things, and the environment at LB is really inclusive, thanks to the teachers. They treat us all like people with no special considerations [for gender]. Once you get in and get started, you and your classmates just become buddies.”

Even though women are still under-represented in the trades, the doors are open for them wider than ever before. And as more and more women continue to seek their career in the trades, the torches they light along the way will glow brighter for other women to follow without the trepidations that once came with entering a male-dominated field.

Marietta Glazner looks towards her career in NDT with this thought: “There may be situations where I am perceived as different because I’m a woman, but I haven’t experienced that yet. This is what I want to do, so I’m not going to let what might happen stop me from doing it.”

Story and photos by Brenda Autry

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