Portland-based footwear maker KEEN Utility has made an investment of $10,000 to Oregon Tradeswomen, a nonprofit that provides training and advocacy for women in the building trades, as part of an ongoing partnership.
Oregon Tradeswomen Inc, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring access, opportunity, and equity for women in the skilled construction trades, was named a recipient of KEEN Utility’s 2022 She Builds Grant Program in May, according to a press release.
The grant is part of KEEN’s She Builds Grant Program, through which the footwear maker has pledged $1 million in product and financial support over five years to nonprofit organizations in the United States and Canada. She Builds is in turn part of a philanthropic effort called The KEEN Effect, whose mission is to make the outdoors and the trades accessible to all.
Credit: Oregon TradeswomenInc.
The nonprofit will use the awarded money to provide wraparound services, such as transportation and childcare, to its members. The $10,000 investment can be re-applied for by applicants which have already received funding, meaning Oregon Tradeswomen could receive the funds again next year.
Kelly Kupcak, Oregon Tradeswomen’s executive director, says that over the next five years, the organization will focus on “sharing stories of women who’ve been successful through this partnership,” in order to get more women interested in pursuing trade work.
“We are trying to ensure there are opportunities for women and people of color who have continued to be historically marginalized and underrepresented in good jobs in the skilled trades,” says Kelly Kupcak, executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen. They are jobs that can allow you to have a career for a lifetime with family-supporting wages, benefits, health insurance, all the things that are important for folks.”
Kupcak also says this feels like “an incredibly historic moment” in the United States, with the level of federal investment into infrastructure, increased discussion of the care economy and ongoing conversations around equity.
Credit: Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.
The U.S. is also facing a growing shortage of workers in skilled trades such as welding, electric, plumbing, healthcare, and mechanics in the United States.
Kupcak says that while only around 4% of workers in the trade profession are women, there is “incredible momentum” for bringing more women into the trades. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has made many people rethink their career track, and with enough childcare and other wraparound services, nonprofits like hers could help foster a more inclusive generation of trade workers.
Robin Skillings, vice president and general manager at KEEN Utility, tells Oregon Business she is concerned about the high retirement rate among trade workers, and estimated there will be roughly 3 million worker shortage in the trades by 2028.
Credit: Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.
The grant continues a history of collaboration between KEEN and Oregon Tradeswomen: since 2016, KEEN has gifted a free pair of work boots to any member of Oregon Tradeswomen upon graduation from trade school.
Skillings says she was drawn to Oregon Tradeswomen after attending one of its career fairs where girls could climb telephone poles and build birdhouses as a way of introducing them to trade skills. Since she started working at KEEN in 2016, Skillings says the nonprofit has been an excellent resource for testing and developing its own products, including fireproof footwear for female welders.
“Oregon Tradeswomen have come in and had open and honest conversations with my marketing team and our product team,” Skillings says. “Just listening and getting their insights on products and our marketing messaging has really grown into an amazing partnership.”
Part of doing that work is supporting organizations attempting to reach a younger generation of women and replace whatever messaging they may be receiving with a more positive image of trade work — breaking down stereotypes that trade work is not intellectually challenging. Skillings says companies have a responsibility, and a vested interest, to change the way trade professions are viewed by girls consider their career path.
“Moving ahead as a brand, the bigger initiative for us is to leverage our platform and leverage our brand as much as we can to build advocacy for the trades. It’s really been about shining our light and saying, ‘Women do exist in the trades,’ and putting a big spotlight on this labor shortage problem,” Skillings says. “Without having more tradespeople, men and women alike, you have the potential of not having somebody be able to come the day your floors get flooded. You’re going to see a bunch more people having to figure out how to fix things on YouTube,” says Skillings.
Although she praised President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, she says that without workforce development, it will not be money well spent.
“Although it’s super generous and gracious of our country to put forward a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, if we don’t have enough men and women in the trades, the work isn’t going to get done at a rate that we need it to, and we’ll still have communities that can’t get clean drinking water. So, we’re at a critical point. It’s all hands on deck,” Skillings says.
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