WASHINGTON — Sylas DeMello got her start in construction as a child pouring the foundation and nailing boards for her family’s deck with her father in Tennessee.
“It was more of a chore, but I enjoyed it,” said DeMello, now an apprentice at Murray Electric in Burlington, Vt.
She makes $18 an hour and expects $25 once she has her journeyman’s license next year – “an immediate step up” from an earlier $13-an-hour job as a sous chef.
DeMello, 32, is one of more than 375,000 apprentices in the U.S. according to the Department of Labor. Just 6 percent were women in 2012, a report in December from the Washington-based Center for American Progress showed.
Increased participation of women in such training is one way for them to become more employable and earn higher wages, some advocates say. Women ages 16 and older comprise 53.6 percent of the U.S. labor force, yet in 2012 made up about 64 percent of minimum-wage workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Britain, the majority of new apprentices in 2012 were women. That followed a two-decade-long effort to recruit more of them into customary apprenticeship fields, such as construction, and expand the programs into female-dominated industries, such as hairdressing.
This broadening in Britain has meant more women in lower- pay apprenticeships, while the wage advantage in the U.S. between apprentices and non-apprentices benefits men more than women. Still, advocates say participants are better off in structured, paid programs that provide training and experience than the alternative, which could be unemployment.
“Getting into a skilled-trade apprenticeship is an extraordinary equalizing opportunity,” said Lauren Sugerman, director of Women and Work Projects at Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based nonprofit that encourages more female employment in nontraditional jobs.
Sugerman, 56, whose own career began 30 years ago as an elevator constructor in Chicago, said it’s necessary to address the lack of women in nontraditional occupations – which the Department of Labor calls any field which has 25 percent or fewer women – when considering wage parity.
“Nobody really knew what an elevator constructor was,” she said. “I certainly didn’t before I got into it; I just knew it made nearly twice as much as I was making working as an interpreter.”
Registered apprenticeships combine structured on-the-job training with technical classes, and the paid participants receive wage increases as their skills progress. Employers can qualify for federal-government grants and state tax benefits, according to the Labor Department.
The three professions with the most apprentices in 2012 were electricians, carpenters and plumbers with median salaries of $49,840, $39,940 and $49,140, respectively.
Women accounted for less than 2 percent of total employment in these occupations, the Center for American Progress report showed. Those fields are projected to grow at least 20 percent – faster than average – by 2022, according to the BLS.
The most common position for women in 2012 was secretary and administrative assistant, according to a Wider Opportunities for Women analysis of BLS data, with a median pay of $35,330.
“Access to good-paying jobs is a big factor in helping raise women out of poverty, and nontraditional jobs for women are an important part of that,” said Mary Gatta, a senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women who studies gender employment and wage issues.
A survey of registered apprentices in 10 states showed that in the sixth year after enrollment, women made $2,615 more annually than nonparticipants, according to a July 2012 study for the Labor Department by Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research. Men in apprenticeships were paid $6,737 more than nonparticipants.
The same study said the benefits outweigh the costs, both in employer spending and government-assistance programs such as welfare. During a participant’s 36-year career, the net social benefit – meaning the added productivity combined with the reduced resources on government programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance — averaged $124,057.
Sugerman cites other advantages, drawing from her own experience.
“To take care of the elevators and escalators in the world’s tallest building when you’re 23 is an awesome thing,” she said of her work in the building formerly called the Sears Tower. “It convinced me of what I could do.”
Gatta and Sugerman’s organization has worked with the Labor Department to preserve funding for the 1992 Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act, which receives about $1 million a year in federal money and places women in building trades.
President Obama’s 2015 budget would eliminate that program and instead proposes a vastly expanded four-year initiative at $500 million annually to help double the total number of registered apprenticeships.
“Apprenticeship can be applied to a lot of jobs and a lot of industries,” said Eric Seleznow, acting assistant secretary of the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration. Broadening the program into health care, information technology and other fields will benefit more workers, including women, he said.
The effort echoes a U.S. drive during World War II, highlighted by the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign, to encourage more women into employment, including nontraditional fields.
Job-training policy in Britain has resulted in a 232 percent increase of women in all levels of apprenticed positions in the decade leading up to 2012, according to March 2013 data from the government’s Skills Funding Agency.
The British government markets the programs to young people, offers tax incentives to employers to take on apprentices and subsidizes much of the classroom training, said Ben Olinsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report on apprenticeships.
Charlotte Kiernan, 20, is a second-year electrical-design apprentice at Sellafield, which reprocesses atomic fuel and manages Britain’s biggest store of nuclear waste in Cumbria, England. Kiernan chose the apprenticeship over a place at Manchester Metropolitan University and said she makes about 12,000 pounds ($19,840) per year, more than the 9,000 pounds her friends pay in annual tuition.
“They might come out of university and start on higher than what I initially started on, but it will level out eventually, the difference being I’ve not got all the debt,” Kiernan said.
Still, much of the growth for women in the British system has been in lower-wage levels of apprenticeships, which include service occupations, said Hilary Steedman, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“It’s a bit discouraging at the moment,” she said. “If women were moving into higher-level apprenticeships, their earnings would be much higher.”
In 2012, there were 230 women in British construction apprenticeships compared with 110 a decade earlier, and 24,050 in child care compared with 8,390, according government data.
Women in lower-wage apprenticeships still have an advantage, said Steedman, since they’re typically not attending college and are at higher risk for joblessness.
Expanding opportunities into areas that are more female- dominated, as in Britain, is a solution for the U.S., said Robert Lerman, economics professor at American University in Washington.
“I’m not sure it’s worth putting a lot of public money into shifting the existing positions from men to women,” Lerman said. “It’s much more constructive to try to increase the total numbers of positions.” Through advising and targeted programs, some women will choose apprenticeships in skilled trades, he said.
For DeMello, the choice was clear. She wanted higher pay and initially started as an apprentice in construction, then realized advanced skills would lead to more opportunities.
As an electrician’s apprentice, she plans to continue with her current employer once she’s licensed. The “hands-on” work drew her to the trade, though she says it has drawbacks.
“I have to be able to lift and hold 50 pounds above my head for 10 minutes in a realistic day-to-day job,” DeMello said. “I don’t know if some people are cut out for that, but it’s a non-gender statement.”