As the Trade Skills Gap Grows, Workwear Brands Must Become More Inclusive

The Biden Administration is in the process of shopping its $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill to restore the country’s roads and bridges, but there is a looming question about who would be building those projects of the future.

According to Generation T, a national movement initiated by Lowe’s to promote the trade industries, there will be 3 million unfilled jobs in the skilled trades by 2028, as workers age out of the labor market without younger people to step into those positions.

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Part of the problem stems from fewer high school training programs and a public preference for college.

“There’s been a decades long campaign against getting dirty at work,” said Aaron Frumin, whose New Orleans-based nonprofit, UnCommon Construction, hosts a paid apprenticeship program for teens and provides scholarships for future study. “About 50% to 60% of our applicants favor entering the construction industry. We know that’s low because people look down on the trades.” However, after the program, about 80% of his graduates say they are industry-bound. “We’re converting more people to see this as a viable career opportunity.”

The troubling skills gap has attracted the attention of many U.S. corporations, with over 70 signing on to the Generation T pledge, including Timberland Pro, which joined in 2019 and pre-pandemic hosted events at high schools to connect teens with apprenticeships. It also recently launched the Timberland Pro x Generation T steel-toe boot for men and women, marked by a donation to the Girls at Work nonprofit.

Other boot brands are leaning in as well. Wolverine is a partner to UnCommon Construction, providing support and boots to students. It also has recruited grads to serve as ambassadors, including Hunter Allums, a four-year electrician apprentice. “I’ve been helping with some awareness raising, showing this is what the next generation looks like and what they’re getting into,” said Allums, who also modeled in a Wolverine campaign.

Meanwhile, in March, Keen Utility debuted its She Builds grant program that will award $25,000 in cash and safety footwear to U.S. nonprofits that offer quality skills training to girls and women.

Keen also has its own ambassador group of tradeswomen, who are helping the brand build product that caters to the needs of female workers. “There is so much more runway for brands to design and develop PPE for women, and we need to continue that effort, from footwear to hard hats and eyewear,” said Robin Skillings, senior director of global marketing at Keen Utility.

For Holland Reini, a Portland, Ore.-based welder who is a member of the Tradeswoman Tested Program, the key to bringing more women into these industries is to create a sense of belonging. “It’s about knowing that it’s an option to start with, and then knowing that you belong there and you deserve a good job with a good livable wage,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that in 2020, women represented 10.9% of the construction industry, up from 9.9% in 2018, while Hispanic and Latino workers now comprise 30% and Black workers make up 6%.

But deep disparities still remain, explained Frumin. “There’s a legacy in the construction industry that reaches further back than slavery around the exploitation of labor,” he said. “And you can see it really plainly on job sites, in terms of who has access to training and equipment.”

Frumin added that recruiting more people will require a change in the narrative. “We have to cultivate the kind of culture that we want to see in the work industry,” he said. “You can be welcoming and lift up people who have been historically underrepresented in the industry.”

For work boot makers that may mean rethinking their brand strategy. And such steps are crucial, according to Lisette Arsuaga, co-president and co-CEO of DMI Consulting. “We’ve learned that connecting with consumers through culture matters more than we ever thought before,” she said. “It’s not only about casting and inclusion when it comes to creative executions, it’s about taking the time to let your customers know that they’re important to you and that you value their business.”

Such efforts do get noticed by brand partners.

Last year, when the issue of racial inequality rose to the forefront, Wolverine publicly stated its support for the Black Lives Matter cause. “I didn’t expect Wolverine to go out of their way to do it, because in their market, it’s not as beneficial to them as it is to Nike, for example,” said Allums. “In the construction industry, at least where I am in Louisiana, about 90% of the people I work with do not really stand with me. So I was pretty proud of them for doing that.”

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