Tradeswomen from across the U.S. and Canada are descending on the Twin Cities for the union-sponsored Tradeswomen Build Nations conference this last weekend.

In its ninth year, the annual event has grown to become the world’s largest gathering of women working in the skilled construction trades. Organizers expect this year’s conference, taking place at the Hilton in downtown Minneapolis, to draw 2,500 participants, as well as labor leaders, elected officials and industry experts.

“On a lot of job sites, you’re the only woman there,” Tamika Foster, a member of St. Paul Plumbers Local 34, said. “This conference is a nice reminder that you’re not the only one.”

Increasing women’s participation in the construction workforce is a major focus of the conference. About 3 percent of construction tradespeople nationwide are women, and the rate hasn’t changed much over the last decade.

There are plenty of benefits to a career in the building trades: family-sustaining wages, high-quality health insurance, retirement security and, notably for women, pay equity.

Women working in the construction trades earn about 96 cents for every dollar earned by men, and under a union contract, the pay scale works the same for men and women workers alike.

“You can support your family all on your own,” said Monique Lewis, a member of Steamfitters Local 469 from Phoenix. “It’s an amazing feeling to wake up an have all that earning opportunity in front of you.”

Early arrivers to the conference participated in a Day of Service this morning. Some packed meals at Second Harvest Heartland in Brooklyn Park; others spruced up Haven Housing’s Ascension Place, a women’s shelter in North Minneapolis.

As she stood atop a ladder painting a hallway in Ascension House, Timesha Beattie, a member of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 5 in Houston, said she’s excited to reconnect with the union sisters she met a year ago, when the conference was in Seattle.

“Last year I was completely amazed that we had so many strong women working in the Building Trades. It was inspiring,” Beattie said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone has been able to do, the ideas they’ve come up with to recruit and inspire more girls to join us.”

“We’re half the population, and maybe 2 percent on the job site?” Foster said. “That’s a whole untapped labor market – half the world!”

The Tradeswomen Build Nations conference is sponsored by North America’s Building Trades Unions, an alliance of 14 national and international unions in the building and construction industry that collectively represent over 3 million skilled craft professionals in the U.S. and Canada.

The conference ran through Sunday.

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