For everyone Trading places: young women are taking up the tools

“What are your thoughts on work experience this year?” I asked my 15-year-old daughter.

The answer came back in one word: Trades.

I was surprised, to say the least – this is a girl who has been known to leave the house at 7am to buy false eyelashes before school so I was, stereotypically, thinking: fashion, retail, hospitality…

I asked her to elaborate.

Another single word: Electrician.

Seek tells me that the average hairdressing wage in Victoria is between $40,000 and $60,000. A beauty therapist does a little better: $60,000–$70,000. The annual salary for a Victorian electrician? $85,000–$105,000. Carpenter? $60,000–$80,000. Plumber? $70,000–$90,000.

Girls have always been excluded from these higher-paying trades, directed instead into lower-paid, traditionally feminised industries. But the trades are, increasingly, a great option for girls and young women: along with better pay, they are relatively immune to the waves of unemployment and casualisation that often affect other industries.

The ABS reports that women currently comprise around 16% of trade and technical workers. Apprenticeship Support Australia finds that while the number of women in trades is increasing, they still make up only 3% of all electricians and 1% of construction workers.

In 2017, working as an AEU project officer visiting TAFEs across the state, spotting a young woman in the trades areas was like playing Where’s Wally. Things are changing, though, and since 2017, a raft of new initiatives has arisen. 

Trades did not just pop into her head. ‘Young women in trades’ has become cool.

The federal government has invested $38.6 million into increasing the number of women in trade-based careers via its Women in Trades initiative, and set targets for the inclusion of tradeswomen in major infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, Tradeswomen Australia works with business and schools to attract young women into trades, offering scholarships, mentoring and networking, as well as helping them find apprenticeships and jobs.

In 2021, the Andrews government launched its Women in Apprenticeships fund to “remove barriers faced by women wanting to start a rewarding career in traditionally male-dominated trades”. The Electrical Trades Union, the National Fire Industry Association, Master Plumbers, and Boeing Aerostructures are all on board.

Victoria’s Women in Construction Strategy 2019–2022 addresses the fact that construction remains one of the most male-dominated trades areas in Australia, and that this has a flow-on effect for the gender pay gap in this country. Only 2% of construction workers are women – and hidden within that statistic are high attrition rates, a gender-exclusionary culture, and a tendency for women tradies to be in less well-paid ‘ancillary roles’.

What is perhaps most interesting, though, are the initiatives starting on the ground, in schools, making the trades a viable and visible career option for girls. ‘Try a Trade’ days give them a tangible work experience opportunity – What does being a tradeswoman look like? After all, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.

At the Northern College of Art and Technology (NCAT), young women in Years 10 to 12 have formed a student-driven cooperative called the Young Women in Trades Group. It brings together students from other schools, parents, industry representatives, progressive local employers, union reps, and qualified tradeswomen to proactively spruik the opportunities for girls in trades and encourage industry partnerships.

In 2022, NCAT saw a large bump in its numbers of female trades students: 8% of the full-time technology cohort. Of these, all except two have gone into employment in their trade. The hope is that, over the next few years, that promising 8% statistic will grow to 25% or 30%. NCAT teacher Daniel Knott says: “With those numbers, the whole culture in trades will change.”

Knowing my daughter as I do, I know her sudden interest in trades is reflective of its newfound popularity among girls her age. ‘Trades’ did not just pop into her head. What’s happened is that ‘young women in trades’ has become cool.

This year’s Trades Fit expo will be held from 10 May 2023 – 11 May 2023 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre to demonstrate the exciting world of trade and tech industries and the rewarding, well-paid career opportunities they can provide to young women. Schools and TAFEs can register now.

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