As a pre-apprenticeship program provider, CWIT is well aware of the challenges programs face in designing a process that is a reasonably accurate predictor of success. For our own Technical Opportunities Program, staff are constantly evaluating the assessment process to learn how we can best identify those candidates that are truly committed to this career path and have the aptitude to succeed. Just because someone tests or interviews well, does not mean that they will complete the training program or successfully transition to apprenticeship. Drive is the key and it comes in all sorts of packages, is very difficult to measure and may be in constant flux as the day to day challenges in a person’s life wax and wane. The stakes are high for apprenticeship programs as you prepare to invest thousands of dollars and three to five years of training in the selected individuals.
Developing a process that provides fair and equitable access without compromising the needs of the program or industry standards, begins with an assessment of the actual skills, knowledge, and qualities needed to succeed in apprenticeship. What level of math, experience, training etc., correlate to success on the job and does a higher math score or more experience equate to greater success? Most apprenticeship programs will say that it isn’t experience or education that makes the difference, it’s soft skills, the ability to come to work on time, take direction, etc. that are important, but this not what most assessment processes are actually measuring. What follows is a brief examination of the impact various selection processes have on female applicants based on CWIT’s nearly 30 years of experience preparing women for apprenticeship and that of other tradeswomen organizations in the construction industry.
Though it is generally true that women are less likely to have a strong technical math background, the majority of these tests, which focus on basic math, reading, spatial visualization, numerical reasoning and/or mechanical comprehension skills, are not usually a barrier to women seeking entry into apprenticeship. In fact, the local programs with the highest acceptance rates, assuming a strong showing by women in the applicant pool, are programs that use testing as the primary or only selection criteria. CWIT recommends that the content of the tests is publicized on your website or made available to applicants, including study guides, so applicants can prepare and improve their scores. After the test, some programs rank the results, while others accept, on a lottery basis, all of the candidates who achieve a passing score. Both systems are basically gender neutral, but because women make up such a small percentage of the applicant pool, it is quite possible that ranking test scores will effectively prioritize a couple of, probably meaningless, percentage points on a test, over the diversification of the program.
Interviews can be useful but the inherent subjectivity can have a very negative impact on the number of women applicants accepted, without necessarily giving you insight into the applicant beyond their ability to impress in an interview. Because most interviewers are men working in one of the most sex segregated industries in the country, it is important to ensure that training on gender neutral interviewing techniques be provided and women are included on the interview panel. Interviews are typically heavily weighted and competitive, so even a small amount of unconscious and unintentional bias can impact the acceptance rates of female applicants. Without training or awareness, an interviewer might not be able to believe the candidate is sincere about her desire to work in the industry or maybe she doesn’t conform, in other ways, to the image of the ideal apprentice in their minds. For example:
- Age: Women tend to be a little older than male applicants. It is the rare 18 year old girl that has the confidence and support to walk onto a construction job site, knowing she may be the only woman there. The average age for CWIT’s participants is 32, time enough to have built the confidence and self-knowledge needed to stand up to the challenges she is likely to face. At the same time, the program benefits from a more mature apprentice who is better able to appreciate and protect the opportunity she’s been given.
- Experience: Women generally have had far less trade related vocational training and paid work experience to discuss in an interview, but that does not mean that they don’t know what they’re applying for or don’t have skills that are valuable to the industry. When CWIT asks the question about experience for our pre-apprenticeship program, many women start out saying they have none, but if you encourage them to tell you about unpaid experience or the reasons why they are applying, you will often find out that not only have they completed a number of related projects, but that they really enjoyed it and are eager for the opportunity to learn. Even seemingly unrelated hobbies or work experience may have taught important transferable skills like organization, team work, and reading a pattern not to mention soft skills such as coming to work on time, completing assignments, taking direction and managing work.
- Delivery: Women in our culture are generally socialized to be more modest and less forceful about their accomplishments or knowledge. So, as the only woman walking into an unfamiliar environment, talking to an expert, or a group of experts, about something she knows she has comparatively little knowledge, it is likely that she may be reticent about sharing what appears to her to be small accomplishments and experience in the field. She may also, as many women do, qualify her statements, saying “I think I want…” rather than “I want…” or may minimize her achievements or skills to avoid overstatement. If she is concerned that she is not being taken seriously as an applicant, she may also be reluctant to show you how much she wants the opportunity. Since many young men do not have these inhibitions, these differences in communication styles may serve to make women appear less confident, less skilled, and less committed to this career path.
- Appearance: Don’t judge a book by its cover. What does a construction worker look like and how does an applicant’s appearance affect your objectivity? It is important here to sort out what is an important predictor of success from what is simply discordant for interviewers.
All that said, interviews can just as easily be used to welcome women in as weed them out, as, whatever process you choose, it is your intention that is the determining factor. If you communicate this intention and take pains to include women in process, train interviewers, ensure consistency, and monitor/evaluate results, you can successfully counter the bias that may otherwise flaw the process. In other words, for some of the programs CWIT has worked with over the years, the interviewing requirement has been a significant barrier, with subjectivity so great that it is impossible to predict who will be successful in the process. In other cases, interviews have provided otherwise inexperienced applicants with the opportunity to sell their positive qualities and improve their chances of gaining acceptance into the program, producing results that are predictable and consistent with an objective assessment of the applicant’s suitability for the program. In some cases, this has evolved – the more success a program has with female apprentices, the more positively women are scored in interviews.
This method is typically objective and, if a woman fails to gain acceptance based on an experience form, she knows what she needs to do to improve her score for the next time. If she fails to score high enough in an interview, she doesn’t have this level of clarity and cannot be certain that anything she does will improve her score, which may be related to the interviewers’ perception of her as much as her performance in the interview. Anecdotally, women’s numbers have improved significantly when programs switch from interviews to experience forms, though there remain some issues with forms that award the greatest number of points for construction experience, which few women possess. If you use this process, it is important to ensure that points are awarded for other skills and experience which are less affected by the disparity in opportunities provided to men and women. For example, some of these forms give participants points for graduating from a qualified re-apprenticeship training program.
Intent to Hire Letter
Tradeswomen’s organizations have seen mixed results with this process because, while most participants are women who are not connected in any way to the contractor community, the advocacy work many organizations are engaged in creates opportunities to connect participants to contractors seeking to meet female hiring goals. For inexperienced aspiring tradeswomen, seeking a letter of intent to hire from a contractor independently is a very difficult process that only rarely results in success. On the other hand, including this as an option gives contractors on government funded job projects the opportunity to recruit and select women into an apprenticeship program, if none already exist in the out of work pool. So it can be a great way to increase numbers if programs and contractors work together to build the pool of qualified women. In general though, using intent to hire as the sole selection method, can significantly disadvantage female job seekers.
The Office of Apprenticeship allows programs to identify prior experience or training that would qualify them for direct entry into the program. In New York City, three preparatory programs have been identified by the city as qualifying candidates for direct entry to apprenticeship, including Nontraditional Employment for Women. This mechanism allows candidates to bypass all or some of the process and gives programs the opportunity to identify and cultivate sources of qualified female applicants and know that this effort will result in increased numbers of female apprentices.
It is an appropriate expectation that male and female candidates alike should be physically fit enough to perform the work required by that trade safely. To gauge this, many programs require applicants to successfully pass a physical that includes a range of strength testing as well as ability to work in confined spaces and at heights. If you do or are considering employing a physical assessment, make sure that what you are requiring applicants to do correlates closely to actual job requirements and does not demand greater strength than is necessary to succeed on the job site. One local program requires applicants to lift and carry well over 100 lbs which is unsafe for everyone and serves only to weed out smaller applicants, particularly women, whose size might also be an asset on many jobs.