New SF Building Trades Program Aims to Keep More Women in the Trades With Services, Support

By Jacob Bourne, Contributing Writer

It’s no secret that women are poorly represented in the building and construction trades — Black and Brown women especially so.

The San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council is doing something tangible to fix that: The council is leaning into diversity with a new program called Sistas With Tools (SWT).

The program, which launches this month, is meant to recruit more Black and Brown women into the trades and retain them as apprentices, journey-level workers, and beyond. SWT is designed to work with each participant individually, identifying her needs and providing her with the appropriate support in an effort to increase the likelihood of her long-term success as a tradesperson.

The Concept

SWT was developed by SF Building Trades-affiliated apprenticeship coordinators and is a joint venture with the San Francisco Labor Council.

SF Building Trades Secretary-Treasurer Rudy Gonzalez is hopeful that SWT has the goods to make it a success where similar diversity-focused, women-forward initiatives have failed. For Gonzalez, it comes down to a strategic combination of experience-based expertise and plain, rational simplicity baked into SWT that he describes as “magic.”

“The magic is that SWT has been methodically designed with input and participation from women who are not only successful in their crafts but respected in their local unions,” he said. “The additional magic is that we aren’t reinventing the wheel — we’re expanding and building upon the successful MC3 program we’ve already got in place and synching SWT with CityBuild and our JATCs.”

SWT is capable of providing a host of helpful services to its participants based on their individual needs, including childcare benefits, customized strength training, and stewardship by council leadership, Gonzalez said. But there’s one service that every SWT participant enjoys regardless of their level of involvement with the program: the guidance and camaraderie of an assigned individual tradeswoman mentor.

If it proves to be a success, SWT’s real magic might just be that personal mentorship element. That’s the core of the program, Gonzalez said, and it’s what gives SWT a bright future.

“The secret sauce is training mentors who are tradeswomen to help these future pre-apprentices and apprentices succeed,” he said. “Peer support is what will make this program work and become sustainable.”

SWT is also available to assist transgender tradespeople and those who identify as nonbinary.

The Outcomes

SWT Program Director Rashaida Nirobe said that this groundbreaking initiative stands to give women a significant leg up in the building trades by creating a support system for them that didn’t exist before.

For example, the primary responsibility of raising children generally falls on women in the household, she said. Without sufficient income or knowledge of available resources that can help them, those women can hit significant roadblocks in career progression.

Securing these mothers’ and guardians’ access to available resources can go a long way toward mitigating potentially career-derailing roadblocks. If the resources are needed, SWT can make it happen.

“[SWT is a] system designed to help overcome barriers like childcare and social services needs, which we have found to be particularly challenging for Black and Brown women in the trades,” Nirobe said. “We aimed to help parents be able to afford safe and reliable childcare that makes participants feel that their children are cared for much like how a family member would care for them, even if it’s an institution providing the service.”

As program participants gain skills during training and mentorship, SWT will provide a stipend, if necessary, to help offset household costs. As unexpected expenses can often arise, there’s also a hardship stipend to address such challenges. These facets of SWT are what make it such a unique program.

All of this costs money, of course. Fortunately, the SF Building Trades has so far succeeded in acquiring a pair of multimillion-dollar grants from the state to fund SWT’s initial program operations and its childcare stipends.

“The childcare funding allows us to enhance our programs significantly,” Nirobe said.

While the grants have gotten SWT off the ground, further funding will be needed to keep the program alive and kicking.

Strength Through Diversity

SF Labor Council Community Services Director Tom Ryan views SWT as a new frontier in efforts to tackle the unequal footing that Black and Brown women tend to experience in the trades.

“We really need to implement a culture change so that women can walk onto the jobsite and get treated with respect,” Ryan said.

He went on to say that he sees diversity as a boon for the construction industry and that new participants are likely to bring unique problem-solving skills that could enhance the construction industry.

IBEW Local 6 Business Representative Sabrina Hernandez said that programs like SWT can go a long way toward helping to meet the increasing demand for construction workers, particularly those needed to achieve green energy mandates in new construction.

“It’s important for us to reach out to women and minorities, and to minority women specifically, to help them become aware of opportunities and to join us for all of the construction work that’s coming down the line,” Hernandez said.

For her part, Nirobe is confident that with the right approach and adequate funding, SWT can make a substantial impact on an industry that counts women as only about 3% to 5% of its national workforce and 3% of its San Francisco workforce.

“We often see a significant drop in numbers between women apprentices who start their training versus those who complete it,” she said. “SWT aims to significantly increase those figures in the first five years of the program.”

Anticipation is high as the SWT team prepares for the official rollout, marking a new era for women as well as trans and nonbinary tradespeople. With its multi-pronged and comprehensive approach, the SWT initiative is set to tackle the industry’s challenges head-on and, with any luck, secure a more gender-inclusive and representative future in the trades.

Yet the vision won’t materialize without broad financial support. The SF Building Trades’ annual Public Service Awards Gala, being held in September, is one primary funding source for the important new work of SWT. Final details and ticket information for the gala are forthcoming in this publication — so watch this space.

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