Women participate in WV Women Work's pre-apprenticeship training.
Participants in WV Women Work's pre-apprenticeship training. The 12-week course includes training in carpentry, welding, and plumbing. | Photo courtesy WV Women Work

When Brook Moyle finished high school, she wasn’t sure if higher education was for her. She tried a culinary arts program, but classes were expensive and kept going up in cost, forcing her to drop out. 

For years after, the 29-year-old Fairmont native and single mother worked odd jobs and dealt with bouts of underemployment, constantly searching for something that could lead to a career she enjoyed and that would pay her well. 

“I needed something more substantial than the little jobs that I had, ” she said.  

This situation isn’t uncommon in West Virginia, where fewer than half of working-age women have jobs  — the lowest rate in the country. There are a number of complicated reasons behind this, but one reason is simple: for West Virginia women, especially women without college degrees, getting a job that pays well is often difficult. 

Along with having lower salaries for workers in general, the state still has a large gender pay gap, where women make less than men even at similar jobs. But women are also less likely to work in some of the state’s higher paying fields, which include engineering, technology, construction and manufacturing. And these industries, particularly manufacturing and construction, have been identified as a key part of West Virginia’s future, with many of the state’s most notable recent economic development investments focusing on attracting these types of jobs.

West Virginia is struggling to get more women into the workforce

In West Virginia and across the country, women make less than men, even working at the same jobs. The gap is even larger for Black and Latina women, who make roughly 60% of what men make. 

These cents on the dollar add up over time: the average woman in West Virginia makes $483,000 less than a man over the course of her lifetime, according to a 2023 review from the National Women’s Law Center. 

This means women in the state would have to work until they were 72 to match what a man made by the time he turned 60.

The gap “can be tremendous,” said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute. “It means that women on average have less economic security, less retirement security, and don’t have the same opportunities for meeting a decent standard of living.”

One big part of this is what economists refer to as “occupational segregation,” the idea that different groups of people are often funneled into different types of jobs. When it comes to gender, research has shown that occupational segregation is more likely to hurt women, and that female-dominated fields pay less. 

This is the case in West Virginia, where many of the jobs that disproportionately employ women are among some of the lowest-paying in the state. This includes fields like health care support, personal care and service, and administrative work. 

The jobs that disproportionately employ men meanwhile, often pay much higher. Some of these fields include construction, installation and maintenance, and engineering. 

96.7% of workers in WV's construction and extraction industries are men, which has a $50,262 median annual salary
97.5% of workers in WV's installation, maintenance, and repair industries are men. It has a $45,667 median annual salary. 88.6% of workers in WV's architecture and engineering industries are men. It has an annual salary of $75,614.

Moyle had long wanted to try a full-time career in construction, but she wasn’t sure how to go about transitioning into the historically male-dominated industry. A flyer eventually led her to a place that could help: West Virginia Women Work, an organization that trains women for skilled trades like construction, plumbing and manufacturing. 

Last year, Moyle graduated from the organization’s Step Up for Women Construction program, a 12 week pre-apprenticeship training that teaches women basic skills in a number of trades and also allows them to receive a variety of industry-recognized certifications and trainings for things like forklift operation, CPR and OSHA safety. She now works as a carpenter at mining sites and residential areas. 

WV Women Work pre-apprenticeship participant Brook Moyle.
Brook Moyle participated in WV Women Work’s Step Up for Women construction program in 2022. | Photo courtesy WV Women Work

West Virginia Women Work is just one of several groups across the country trying  to get more women into the skilled trades, especially unionized positions, which pay higher than many other fields in states like West Virginia and can help people without college degrees access better paying work. But women still make up a very small minority of these workers: Nationally, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that women account for just 4% of construction workers. They make up an even smaller percentage of workers in other construction trades, including carpenters (3.5%), electricians (2.2%), and plumbers (1.1%).

“The majority of women are not comfortable with the skilled trades, they don’t know how to get into that work,” said Carol Phillips, West Virginia Women Work’s executive director. 

But these jobs can be crucial to helping women bridge pay gaps and make more money. “We concentrate on putting women in nontraditional careers because studies have shown over and over that male-dominated careers pay higher,” Phillips said.  

Since 2000, the program has helped more than 1,500 women learn the skills needed to transition into careers in construction and manufacturing, and it has been especially helpful for women without college degrees seeking higher paying jobs.The training has supported women like Katelyn Belcher of Sod, who said that she spent years looking for a job that would be more fulfilling after working stints in fast food and at airports. Belcher went through the Step Up program in 2020, and currently works as a carpenter helping maintain bridges around the state. “It is a good foot in the door for a lot of better paying, better benefit jobs,” she said.  

WV Women Work pre-apprenticeship participant Katelyn Belcher.
Katelyn Belcher participated in the Step Up for Women construction training in 2020. She now works as a carpenter in the state. | Photo courtesy WV Women Work

The program also recently helped Ava Acker, a 20-year old from Morgantown. Before her mom told her about West Virginia Women Work, Acker spent two years in college and worked at a local Dairy Queen, but she left school because she wanted a job that would help her take care of her young son, and her service job wasn’t cutting it.

She says that her new position as an environmental inspector, a broad job that involves testing soil, collecting plant samples and doing inspections prior to construction projects, has fit her needs. It also pays her better, allowing her to be financially independent. “A lot of companies don’t have any women, but my company makes me feel like I’m no different,” she said. 

Hiring more women is just one part of closing wage gaps in the state 

Even with the help programs like the one run by West Virginia Women Work, jobs in fields like manufacturing and construction can be difficult. Some positions require significant travel around the state, which makes reliable transportation absolutely crucial. And some women in these industries say that problems with disrespect and harassment, a lack of opportunities for job growth, and long work hours can make them eventually leave these jobs altogether. 

When it comes to the difficulties faced by women in trade jobs, “you might think it’s sexism, discrimination, or that women physically are not tough enough, but [broadly] that isn’t true,” Phillips said. The biggest barriers for women in these jobs, she argues, “is overwhelmingly child care, transportation, and the benefits cliff.”

Women participate in WV Women Work's pre-apprenticeship program.
WV Women Work’s 12-week pre-apprenticeship course helps prepare women for future careers in construction or manufacturing. | Photo courtesy WV Women Work

The latter refers to the period where a person is no longer eligible to receive benefits like unemployment and food assistance due to having a new job, but they haven’t actually started making money yet. It can be an especially difficult time for single mothers, who often need better paying jobs the most but face significant barriers in getting them. 

Moyle can relate. As a mom of two, she has struggled at times to find child care that lasts long enough for her to work a full day. “Sometimes you’re working long hours, sometimes you’re working odd hours where you can’t get a kid on and off the bus, you can’t get them ready for day care or school or anything,” she said. 

She turned to a relative for help, and says that without their help with child care, her transition into the construction industry wouldn’t have been possible. 

After starting a new construction job earlier this month, Moyle says that she is hopeful that more women will be able to find their way into the trades and the increased financial freedom they can help provide. And she hopes that more companies in the state will see the value of bringing new people into the industry and paying them well.  

“The really good companies want women to work for them,” she said.

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.