WEST VALLEY CITY — Some traditionally male-dominated jobs in Utah are having trouble attracting enough workers, so a program aimed at providing that labor is calling on women to flex their trade-skills muscles.
In a flashback to one of the more famous times a woman was seen as a welder — Jennifer Beals in the 1980s film "Flashdance" — Utahn Nikki Navarro, 38, is embarking on a career under the helmet as an apprentice after starting her working life as a chef.
"That was the best decision I ever made," she said. "As soon as I joined, my skills (and) my confidence in what I'm doing just grew from there."
The single mother of six children said having a new passion that allows her to support her family has been life-changing.
"Being able to take care of my kids by myself and not have to rely on anybody" has been liberating and uplifting, she said.
"I love it. It's something I'm really good at it," Navarro said. "I can provide for my family, travel, (be an instructor). It's been the best decision I ever made."
Next Monday, the Utah Women in Trades career conference will describe opportunities for women to join an apprenticeship training program to work in trade occupations. Careers in skilled trades are labor positions requiring specific training, including welding, plumbing, electrical and carpentry, among many others.
For years, men have held the lion's share of those well-paying jobs, explained state Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, but the time has come for women to challenge the traditional narrative and seek out opportunities in these sought-after professions.
"The goal is for women to not (have) to be a teacher, not be a secretary, not be a nurse," she said. "Our goal is for women to look at all occupations."
Mayne said despite Utah’s "booming" economy, women are not benefiting equally, particularly in the skills trades. Wages for men exceed wages for women in almost every industry statewide, yet women comprise 44 percent of the state labor force.
Mayne said that by working in trades such as construction, electrical, plumbing or welding, women can have a pay scale that is set by training and level of experience. They are able to support themselves and their families, whether they have the help of a partner or not, she added.
"Many women go into occupations where they cannot support themselves," she said. "Sixty-four percent of women in the United States are the breadwinners and in Utah, we make 70 cents on the dollar. That's not fair."
She said skilled trade apprenticeships can get women started in these careers where they receive education and on-the-job training while also earning a paycheck. The conference will provide real and virtual demonstrations of apprenticeships in building trades, along with presentations on public safety careers as well as information to help women get started on a new long-term career path, Mayne said.
According to DWS regional economist Hope Morrow, male wages outweigh female wages in every industry statewide with the exception of forestry. The labor force participation rate for women in Utah is 60 percent, with women making up 28 percent of Utah's manufacturing employment, 16 percent of the utility industry workforce, 50 percent of financial activities, 9 percent in construction and 68 percent of the health care sector labor force.
Over 30,000 women statewide are employed in production, maintenance and constructions occupations, she added.
After finding herself out of a job when the printing company she previously worked for as a machine operator went out of business, Amber Peterson, 37, said she wasn't sure what her next step would be.
"I was forced to start over, " she said. Having been interested in working outside in construction operating equipment, she contacted a friend who worked at a local union hall to inquire about positions as heavy equipment operators.
She signed up for an apprenticeship and today has achieved her goal of operating large earth movers and other heavy equipment in what she describes as a very positive workplace.
"The most common thing I hear women say when they hear what I do is, 'Oh, I could never do that,'" she said. "The truth is anybody could do it. You just have to not focus on the fact that you're the only woman."
The Utah Women in Trades Career Conference will take place at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 1355 W. 3100 South, West Valley City. Visit utahwomenintrades.org for registration and information.