Can women work construction jobs?
Nationally, women only make up about 2 percent of building industries workers, but if you ask the organizers of the New Hampshire Building Pathways program, a new initiative aimed at recruiting and training women for careers in construction, women do just as well as men.
“The truth is, women have been doing heavy physical labor since the dawn of time. There’s nothing inherent about us that says we can’t do this,” said Liz Skidmore, Building Pathways organizer and veteran construction worker. “As girls, we don’t get told this is an option, or this is possible.”
The New Hampshire Building Trades Unions is piloting Building Pathways, which will give 13 unemployed and underemployed women the opportunity to participate in a pre-apprenticeship program.
Lots of women love building, Skidmore said. Even so, they aren’t typically encouraged to go into construction trades. Most who do enter into construction have fathers, brothers or uncles in the field.
“The girls don’t grow up thinking they can build buildings,” Skidmore said. “I certainly wasn’t raised to think I could grow up to become a carpenter. That wasn’t an option when I was little.”
Intro to the trades
Unlike apprenticeship programs, during which beginning workers are expected to learn one trade thoroughly, Building Pathways is a general crash course. It offers hands-on experience and gives women the opportunity to learn and decide which trade interests them the most before entering apprenticeships.
The training, which will begin in May, will include instruction in carpentry, electrical, sheet metal, plumbing and more.
The program was initiated when Bonnie St. Jean of the Department of Resources and Economic Development Workplace Opportunity Office contacted the Building Trades Union looking to make use of some of its Workforce Investment Act funds. It is modeled after the Massachusetts Building Pathways Pre-Apprenticeship program, which has been up and running successfully for three years and has placed 93 people, 60 percent of them women, in apprenticeships.
Women who complete New Hampshire’s new class will have a leg up when it comes to landing apprenticeships because there’s emphasis on placing project graduates.
“When they come out of the program, we can present that to the apprenticeship program. We’ll say, ‘Here’s a good candidate,’ [and] that will push them to the front of the list,” said Joseph Gallagher, a Building Pathways organizer. “Every year, lots of people apply. If you are at the back end of list, you won’t get selected.”
Typically, when someone is looking to get into construction, competition for apprenticeships is stiff. The number of applications varies by trade, but it’s around 160, said Gallagher, and usually there’s only a couple spots.
Josephine Curtin, a Manchester resident, has family in the union. She likes the idea of joining for the support it provides its members. But when she tried to apply for an apprenticeship in the past, she got overwhelmed.
“I went in for the application, but I backed out. It can be really intimidating,” she said “Just going in for the interview and stuff. It’s a big scary thing. This kind of offered a more relaxed way to enter.”
Searching for builders
At information sessions held throughout the state last month, women listened to Skidmore and other construction professionals, both men and women, discuss the good, bad and ugly aspects of their jobs.
Speakers reiterated the fact that no matter what gender you are, if you don’t get some kind of enjoyment from building, it’s not going to work. In construction, people are expected to work hard in rain or snow, hot or freezing temperatures.
“You have to carry your weight. You have to hustle. You have to get strong,” Skidmore said. “We work outside all year around. In this crazy winter we’ve had, I’ve had workers out there every single day.”
But for people who enjoy at least some elements of the work it provides opportunities to work on diverse projects that have visible results.
The wage and benefits aren’t shabby either. On average, construction workers earn more than $25 per hour, in addition to health insurance, pensions, annuity and educational opportunities. A gender wage gap doesn’t exist either.
“In union construction women make exactly the same as men, and we make two or three times minimum wage,” Skidmore said.
After this year’s cycle concludes, organizers will talk with all the partners and do an analysis of how the program went. If they agree it was productive, more women will have the opportunity to participate in the future.
Generating interest in the program was more difficult than organizers expected, Gallagher said. At the first few informational meetings, only about a dozen women total showed up. But for the fourth information session, a group of about 30 women with diverse backgrounds attended. Some of them had had prior careers as hairdressers or nurses. Others were tired of working low-wage jobs that offered little security.
Some had university degrees that led to more debt than job prospects. That was the case for Chester resident Annastashia Park, whose teaching degree didn’t lead to a stable job.
“I’m kind of starting over,” she said. “Finally having a feeling and a sense of being able to support myself and land on my feet is what led me to this.”
As seen in the April 17, 2014 issue of the Hippo.