Trading In Stereotypes

In the Christchurch rebuild, will women miss out on most of the high-paying jobs?
by Gordon Campbell

Buoyed by payouts from insurance companies and funds from central and local government, the Christchurch rebuild is already a key driver of the nation’s economic recovery, and a prime beneficiary of the government’s asset sales programme. Surprisingly little attention however, has been given to the gender skew in the jobs the Christchurch recovery will generate. If, as is widely conceded, many of the initial (high paying) jobs are in construction, men will get the lion’s share of them. How are women’s incomes (and their job opportunities) likely to fare in the course of the Christchurch rebuild ?

Of course, women will be not be shut out entirely from jobs as the rebuild progresses. In management, in services, in retail and hospitality industries, interior decorating etc. women will be hired. Yet construction is a sector where over 85 % of the jobs and skills training are currently dominated by men – and, despite any preconceptions to the contrary, physical strength is not a valid reason for this imbalance. As of last year, one in eight of all people employed in Christchurch were employed in construction.

True, the skewed extent to which male employment will benefit from the rebuild could be regarded as a form of catch-up for the disproportionate impact that the Global Financial Crisis had on male workers – an effect that was again, largely due to men dominating the work force in manufacturing and construction. Women’s jobs were less affected by the GFC – yet even so, an estimated 13,000 jobs for women were lost in downtown Christchurch as a result of the quakes. At the end of 2006, 39, 213 people were working in the region bounded by the four avenues – yet three years after the February 2011 quake, only 19,419 adults had returned to work in that city central area by the end of 2013.

The full extent of the gender bias in the jobs being created by the rebuild is not yet known, mainly because ( at time of writing) official forecasts of the rebuild-related jobs had yet to be released, although these are expected to number in the tens of thousands. Access to these jobs will not be uniform. As the Statistics Department noted recently : “ With many indicators pointing to a recovery, labour market outcomes for men and women will likely vary – depending on which industries employ them.” As the Sydney Morning Herald recently noted, even Warren & Mahoney – the architectural firm shaping the Christchurch rebuild – is a heavily male-dominated enterprise.

A glance at the “People” page on the Warren & Mahoney website bears that out.

There are deeper issues involved. One has to do with the adequacy of planning to date, in creating the supply chain of skills required by the rebuild. Given the job numbers involved, has there been enough investment – since February 2011 – in domestic skills training programmes, thus reducing the city’s reliance on skilled migrant labour sourced from overseas? Alas, little attempt has been made to train – or retrain – women to help meet those looming skills shortages. To date, that opportunity has gone begging. Stories like these remain the exception and rely on strong self-motivation.

Longer term, there are related issues. As the economy changes and technology continues to scythe through the white collar service and management jobs – into which women with arts, commerce and law degrees etc have tended to congregate – should the trades be seen as offering young women a more stable and better paid career, and one to which women could return to more readily, after time out for the bearing and raising of children ? If so, perhaps this generation’s helicopter parents should be seriously considering a plumbing, electrical or building apprenticeship for their daughters, rather than automatically packing them off to university for a degree which – increasingly – will leave them under-employed, underpaid and with a large burden of student debt.

Among the challenges facing the Christchurch rebuild are the skills shortages already known to exist. Ruma Karatiana is executive director of the Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO), which administers much of the apprenticeships in the construction industry. Early last month, Karaitiana cited the country’s need for a further 5,000 new apprenticeships, on top of the 55% increase already recorded in 2013. The Christchurch rebuild and housing shortages in Auckland, Karaitiana argued, are driving an enduring need for more apprentices:

In 2013 there were 3,230 new sign ups to the BCITO, in comparison to 2,083 in 2012. Although this is by far the largest increase in trainee numbers the BCITO has seen in recent times, chief executive Ruma Karaitiana says the industry is still short of 5,000 apprentices. “The building and construction industry is going through a period of rapid growth and demand, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch. The challenge – and the reality – of the nature of work in both cities is that everything is high priority,” he says. “In Christchurch, people can’t cope with living in damaged homes for another year. In Auckland, the housing shortage is now so acute that starting the build is vital.“

Such calls cannot be attributed simply to the self interest involved in ITOs touting for paying customers for their training programmes. As mentioned, the option of tapping the potential of women – via, say, advertising campaigns to promote female trades training and re-training – continues to be a road not taken. Arguably, the rebuild has presented a golden opportunity for the wartime exploits of Rosie The Riveter to be updated to her modern equivalent : say, Charlotte the Construction Worker. The main barriers preventing wider female participation in the building industry are socio-cultural, not physical.

In August 2013 for instance, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs published a research report entitled Building Back Better : Utilising Women’s Labour in the Canterbury Recovery. In it, the researchers tackle (at page 37) the misconceptions that women are not physically capable of doing the tasks required on a construction site.

These results suggest that women are turned off from rebuild opportunities as the workforce is male-dominated and so is the advertising for the jobs. A culture of acceptance of women on the job sites, from the top down, would go some way towards alleviating this issue. However, this would need to be effectively communicated to potential female employees to change their perception. The perception that construction jobs are too physically demanding for many women to handle has been dismissed by employers we met with, who have argued that women are able to do most if not all of the tasks required. This has not been effectively communicated to women, as the perception still prevails.

And moreover, at page 43 of the MFA report :

A barrier may exist in encouraging all employers, and specifically employers in the construction industry, to consider employing women. The industry is male-dominated and employers need to to be prepared to change this. The industry reoports that women can bring advantages to role in construction including better attention to detail, an ability to relate well toi homeowners. They often treat the equipment with more care, and are generally able to negotiate well through conflict. In order to get women into these roles the jobs need to be advertised to women. The current advertising is perceived to be male-dominated…..

In July 2013, the same conclusions were reached by the Electricity Supply Industry Training Organisation (ESITO) A research project about the effects of employing more women in traditionally male-dominated roles shows that women bring additional skills to the workplace. ESITO’s key findings were:

The women made a significant contribution to the health and safety aspects of their work in what is accepted as a hazardous environment.

The teams they worked with needed to change how they operated rather than expecting the women to become “one of the boys”.

Good human resource practices by their employers made a significant difference to the way women integrated with their work colleagues.

Some of the motivators for women differ from men and include a greater sense of job satisfaction, good career prospects and taking on a challenge.

Women in these types of roles provide advantages for employers through improved ability to meet diverse customer needs, having highly skilled and committed employees, reduced need to recruit from oversees, and improved communication and interpersonal skills.

The need to enable such skills to exist and flourish has been signalled before. Eight years ago, the Human Rights Commission was lamenting the low participation rates of women in trades skills training:

Latest figures show that one in twelve Modern Apprentices are women, and a growing number of them are training to become builders, joiners, carpenters, electricians and motor mechanics. “However there is still a long way to go, with female apprentices increasing from 6.6 percent in 2003 to just 8.5 percent today,” [ then Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Judy] McGregor says.

That same year, the HRC issued a report called Give Girls A Go ! Female Modern Apprentices in New Zealand.

In it, one female apprentice described construction work as one of the few jobs that provided, at the end of the day, a visible and shared sense of achievement. In her view, it offered other advantages for young women as well :

“I couldn’t really just rack up debt and then spend the next ten years paying it back. I wanted to be able to do something that didn’t cost me a million bucks, and actually come out with a good solid qualification that can take me anywhere. I can do it anywhere in the world.”

Depressingly little change has occurred since the HRC report in 2006. Official employment statistics statistics show the gender ratios in construction jobs have barely budged since that time. Apprenticeship figures supplied for this article by the Skills Organisation ITO (which manages apprenticeships in a number of trades, including plumbers and electricians) also bear this out. If anything things are getting worse, not better.

Overall, women acounted for only 4.04% of the apprenticeships offered by the Skills Organisation in 2006, and this gender ratio had declined to only 2.83% as at the end of last year. In 2006, women trainees in the “electrical” category ( ie training as general electricians, not counting varuious sub-categories) there were only 56 women out of 3,672 or 1.52% – yet looking at the 2013 intake, this ratio had declined to 1.23%, by the end of 2013, even though the physical demands of an electrician’s job could be considered (a) as being less onerous than those in building site construction work, and (b) as entailing work that conforms to gender stereotypes about women’s attention to detail.

These depressing figures are repeated among the figures supplied for this article by BCITO, which manages apprenticeships in carpentry and other worksite construction skills. Of 8,360 BCITO trades apprenticeships in 2013, only 190 – or 2.27% – were by women. Among the 5,780 carpentry appprenticeships last year, women accounted for only 33 of them, or .05% In painting and decorating apprenticeships, the picture was better; with 98 women among the 883 apprentices overall, or 10.75%.

When asked by Werewolf, Skills Organisation manager Katherine Hall agreed that the training and retraining of women could indeed help to meet the shortfall of skilled tradespeople for the Christchurch and Auckland housing rebuilds. “Why wouldn’t it ? Women are equally as capable – and absolutely if there is an opportunity for women to retrain in these areas we would encourage them to investigate the possibility of getting into a trade.” In reality, Hall sees no genuine barriers to women working in constructioin and related trades. “At the absolute basic level, there has to be a willingness to work. In some instances, that does mean you have to be messy and a bit mucky. But there is absolutely no reason why women can’t do the tasks that a lot of men are doing as well.” Any heavy lifting required on site, she says pointedly, if it is to be done safely should be a two person job – regardless of the gender of the workers doing the lifting.

For their part , could employers be doing more to foster the trades as a viable option for women via – for example – the way they tailor the advertising for these positions ? Hall : “That’s a really interesting question, and that’s something as an ITO that we are addressing, currently. It raises issues around some of the myth-busting that needs to go on…” In her view, tackling the preconceptions will require an acknowledgement of the images of women’s work that exist in popular culture, within the likes of reality television. “If we could make plumbing sexy in some way, then we’d look for an opportunity to do that,” she says, only half-jokingly.

As the dispensers of the some of the crucial funds, could central and local government be doing more to lift their game when it comes to fostering the trades as a viable option for women ? Central government, she believes, is doing what it can by way of the apprenticeship Reboot scheme – which reflects the more open system that now exists, whereby any person of a realistic age can come into an apprenticeship and access the funding support to do so. The Reboot scheme, Hall adds, is also helping get people off the ground with a one-off tools allowance payment – which was introduced last year and subsequently extended through to 30 June, 2013. Beyond that date, the fate of the tools allowance is currently in the hands of MBIE Minister Steven Joyce.

Even so, the recruitment of women into the trades can readily seem like a lost cause. Doesn’t Hall find it discouraging that the relevant apprenticeship figures seem to be flatlining or even, in some areas, turning down? In reply, she finds reason for optimism in the consolidation that’s been taking place within a formerly highly fragmented ITO sector – where, up until recently, upwards of 40 ITOs had competed for apprentices. The fact that only 12 ITOs now do the same training work has opened up opportunities, she believes, in lagging areas that need improvement. “Maori Pasikifa is one [of those] sectors. The recruitment of women is another.”

Ultimately, the jobs that will be directly generated by the Christchurch rebuild can usefully be split into (a) the “horizontal” ones involved in providing infrastructure across, and below, the ground and (b) the “vertical” ones involved in construction. Many of the latter jobs will be associated with the so-called “anchor” major projects, jointly funded by government and private insurance monies. The ongoing delays in finessing thorny issues such the procurement programmes for these projects have delayed the release of the job forecast numbers involved, but the release of that information is imminent. The ‘horizontal’aspects of the rebuild ( roading, drainage etc) have largely been the preserve of the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT).

Whatever the exact job numbers on offer….would young women be better off socially and financially, from pursuing a career in the trades as compared to a university degree? The official figures still show an income advantage – in median earnings – for those with a university degree, compared to those with other forms of tertiary qualification. Yet even so, the average earnings of graduates in jobs will mean little to those graduates who can’t find employment. In that sense, the average income figures blur the realities of graduate vs trades employment, unemployment and under-employment, and the impact of student debt burdens.

Still, such studies are all we have. This recent MBIE study of workplace-based industry training reflects the obvious fact that there is a cost involved in training and/or retraining. It would seem that training only to lower stages of skill – ie to levels one to three on the certification ladder – suggests that the average earnings of such women had either flatlined or deteriorated, 48 months afterwards. Interestingly, men still in training did not suffer to quite the same extent. “The impact on average earnings varied considerably by age and sex. Gaining a qualification at level 3 improved the average earnings of males, but not females.” However, from level four onwards ( ie, the point at which the person is seen to be “ qualified”) both (a) the earnings position and (b) the employment prospects improved, ultimately to levels 7% higher than than those of comparable non-participants, 48 months after training started.

Anecdotally, Katherine Hall of the Skills Organisation ITO is pretty sure about the relative advantages : “If I was an 18 year old girl – and I could look again at the four years I spent coming out of university with one degree – versus going labouring and picking up an interest in the scaffolding industry or in electrical or plumbing, I could invest that four years and came out with a qualification. And then essentially be able to go and run my own business. Such that when I reached the grand old age of 40, I would probably own two or three houses and a bach and a boat. And be able to golf every second day, if I chose. Not only that, but I would have the flexibility of having children in and around that work, because of the way the trades operate.”

Given the potential for in-work training, would the debt burden at the end of your trades training period also be significantly less ? “ Yes, there’s no student loan. You’re earning while you’re learning. And yes, there is some cost involved. Anyone entering into training understands that in order to invest in their training they are going to have pay a bit along the way – but by no means is it anywhere near the type of student debt with which people [commonly] come out of university. “