In this years State of the Union, President Obama emphasized the need for workplace policies to adequately reflect 21st century realities. These realities include the fact that women currently make up almost half of the workforce. As the president noted, however, women also hold a majority of low-wage jobs, and we are a long way from pay equity. According to a 2011 study by the Department of Labor, women made up 49% of the workforce, but represented 59% of low-wage workers. One reason for womens overrepresentation among low-wage workers is the industries in which they work. In fact, half of all working women are employed in only 28 of the 534 U.S. Department of Labor job categories. With the exception of teaching and nursing, low-paying jobs dominate these categories.
Women do not, however, make up large portions of the burgeoning occupations the President drew attention to in his Address Tuesday night. The President stressed the importance of putting as many construction workers on the job as fast as possible. Currently, women are only 2.7% of all construction laborers. The president also highlighted the importance of beating out other countries in, the race for the next wave of high-tech manufacturing jobs. Women are only 2.9% of millwrights, 5.4% of all machinists, 12.3% of all metalworkers, 4% of welding, soldering, and brazing workers, and 3.5% of all industrial and refractory machinery mechanics all roles vital to high-tech manufacturing. [i]
The small numbers of women who are in these nontraditional occupations typically earn 20-30% more than women in traditional occupations. Increasing womens participation in nontraditional occupations means womens increased economic security, and that means more economically secure children, families, and communities. And a diverse and equitable workforce means industry is more competitive as it benefits from the talents, experience and expertise of all its citizenry. To ensure a truly strong state of our union, programs and resources directed at ending occupational segregation by gender a root cause of the gender wage gap should go hand in hand with our evolving workforce development and workplace policies.
The transportation bill the President encouraged Congress to finish by this summer is one legislative avenue to increase womens representation in nontraditional jobs. This bill, which provides federal funding for surface transportation programs, needs stronger provisions to ensure the utilization and success of the On-the-Job Training and Supportive Services Program (OJT/SS). OJT/SS was established to ensure the increased participation of minority groups and disadvantaged persons and women in all phases of the highway construction industry.
Other Federal legislation can also support the goal of increasing womens employment in nontraditional occupations. WANTO, the Women in Apprenticeable and Non-Traditional Occupations Act, currently authorizes only a meager $1 million annually to fund competitive grants to community-based organizations for providing technical assistance to employers and labor unions to help them recruit, train and retain women for non-traditional, high-wage, high-demand jobs. WOW has partnered with congressmembers to introduce the Women WIN act, which authorizes up to $100 million for recruiting, training, placing and retaining women in high-demand, high-wage nontraditional occupations and providing funding for innovative partnerships in each and every state.
Women WIN also calls for a bipartisan National Commission on the Status of Women in High-demand, High-skill Nontraditional Occupations this could function in the same way the Glass Ceiling Commission worked to highlight barriers to advancement and equity for women in white-collar professions.
As the President reported on the Vice-Presidents reform of Americas training programs, he described a singular mission of the reform: to train Americans with the skills needed by employers that will allow individuals to get good jobs. It is imperative to the success of this mission that women are included in those skilled Americans, because when women succeed, America succeeds.