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A Woman’s Place Is Slowly But Surely Becoming The Construction Site

Anai Melendrez will likely be the only young woman from Oakland’s Fremont High School Class of 2018 to become a carpenter. Instead of spending the next four years in college, the 17-year-old senior plans to start a career in construction — an industry that has long been stereotyped for its crude manliness.   

But Melendrez is not concerned.

Fremont High School senior Anai Melendrez

“I'm personally not scared. I’m not the type of person to be timid,” she said.

Melendrez knows the reputation construction has. Women on the job site anticipate bullying, hazing, discrimination and sexual harassment. Women who have worked on construction job sites tell Bisnow they had to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to prove themselves.

Such challenges make Melendrez angry, but she is hopeful that the industry will change as the the U.S. continues to grapple with the #MeToo movement that sprung up in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.

“This is a real problem that is surfacing in the industry,” she said. “But there are a lot of programs helping women in construction. A lot of people want to see equality now.”

That includes Mary Ann Naylor, communications and marketing director at Oregon Tradeswomen. The perception of construction is changing, she said, and organizations, schools and unions are working to provide support for women in the trades — especially now that more workers are needed to address the ongoing labor shortage.

“People forget this is a workplace — a place where people exchange time and skills for money and everyone needs to be treated fairly,” Naylor said.

The industry still has a long way to go. Women made up 9.1% of jobs in the construction industry as of 2016. Melendrez also will likely be the only female carpenter on the job site since only 2% of carpenters are women.

Fremont High School senior Anai Melendrez

These statistics are not deterring Melendrez’s dream of building low-income housing and supportive housing for the homeless. Ever since she was a young girl, construction has been a part of her life. Her father owns a construction company, and he would let Melendrez go with him to job sites where she first learned how to work with tools, she said.

In school, she has done several projects and recently built benches and added burnt edges to provide a rustic look. She tried her hand at electricity through an internship with PG&E and realized she did not like the trade. Carpentry gives her the most fulfillment.

“I just enjoy working with my hands,” she said. “You see your projects when they’re done and it makes you feel really good.”

Melendrez received support from a mentor through the Oakland Unified School District, which brought back a vocational training/mentorship program over two years ago. The school district hired Emiliano Sanchez as director of career and technical education/trades and apprenticeship to provide students and their families with information about careers outside of a typical college career path.

In addition to career fairs, the school district offers a 13-week program where students can meet with various trade workers across the construction industry and visit job sites, according to Sanchez.

He said in a lot of cultures, people believe construction is a man’s job, but women can really take care of their families in this industry. Men and women in the trades can earn upward of six figures.

“I do tell them if you really want to do this, don’t let anybody push you away from what you want to do,” Sanchez said. “Don’t let anyone choose for you.”

Sanchez’s support and outreach helped Melendrez learn about the process to become a carpenter. While her family supports her decision to enter the trades, many of her teachers and friends kept encouraging her to take the college path, she said.

“People tend to look down on construction,” she said. “We need to have more people who really see that college isn’t the only option to make it out. Everybody should be entitled to access to more opportunities in their careers. For a lot of people, school isn’t for them.”

Women In Construction Isn’t Just About Diversity

A girl and an Oregon union member participate in an annual career fair hosted by Oregon Tradeswomen.

For the last few decades, college was the only route schools were pushing. Vocational training was seen as an expense not needed, but now there has been a shift to address the shortage of blue-collar workers.

In Oregon, for example, voters passed a bill in 2016 that requires schools to add vocational education back into the curriculum not only for construction, but also for manufacturing.

Often kids go to college even if it is not the right fit and end up leaving school with debt and still no clear direction of what they want to do, according to Oregon Tradeswomen’s Naylor.

“So many kids don’t even know that you can get an education and get paid while you’re learning,” Naylor said.  

School systems have not done a good job presenting the trades and apprenticeship alongside a college route, Naylor said. Now the nation is struggling to find skilled workers and to stave off the impact of the “silver tsunami” as baby boomers and Gen Xers get older and near retirement, she said.

There have been stereotypes of manual labor not being as good as professional fields, but trades require a lot of technical skills and math to be successful, she said.

“We have to get parents on board as well so they do not feel like their child is losing status or isn’t capable,” she said.

One way Oregon Tradeswomen has been doing just that is through education and mentorship for women throughout Oregon. The nonprofit was started in 1989 by four tradeswomen who were often the only females on a job site. They originally came together as an informal networking group, Naylor said.

In addition to its networking opportunities today, it hosts career fairs for local schoolchildren and women considering the trades. It also offers pre-apprenticeship programs to help get young women prepared for a career in the trades.

No Quick Fix To Toppling Gender Barriers

Oregon Tradeswomen Communications and Marketing Director Mary Ann Naylor and French freelance journalist Raphaëlle Peltier

It will not just take convincing parents and teachers to be OK with young women forgoing a college education and entering the trades. The industry needs more female leaders to help shift the culture of the industry, according to Naylor.

Retention remains one of the biggest issues. Some women do not complete apprenticeship programs or leave the trades because they endure harassment and hazing.

“It’s incredibly complicated for someone to speak up if something is happening,” Naylor said. “Sometimes if you are the one and only woman and something comes down from supervisors everybody knows it was you that said something.”

Many times, women end up coming to Oregon Tradeswomen to seek counsel and advice on what to do.

Oregon Tradeswomen’s work seems to be paying off. While the national average of women in apprenticeship programs is about 3%, Oregon’s average is 7%, according to Naylor.

Each year, about 1,200 women contact Oregon Tradeswomen, but this is 10 times as many as it can accept. Many of the women who enter pre-apprenticeship at the organization come from the food and service industries and earn about $12K annually.

“These are women who are trying to take ownership of their lives and have a pathway to the middle class and have stability,” she said.

Forging A Path In Construction

Retired steamfitter Debora Gonzalez with two business agents at her apprenticeship graduation

While the trades may provide women more financial stability, the path is not an easy one. Tradeswomen typically have to prove their worth on the job site before they are taken seriously, according to retired steamfitter Debora Gonzalez.

“You’re not going to get anything from the men if you don’t try your hardest, and when you do, you gain their respect,” she said. “I pulled my own weight. I didn’t shrink away from anything.”

At 46, Gonzalez, then a single mother, left hospitality and became a steamfitter with the support of her stepfather. She joined the Local 638 steamfitters union and enjoyed being a steamfitter right away from brazing to soldering to sprinkler installations and working with machines.

“I was hands-on and left to do my job instead of always having to deal with people and their nonsense,” she said.

When Gonzalez worked on projects around New York City, she was often the only woman on the job site. She said while she supports women getting into a trade like steamfitting, it is not for everyone and requires extremely physical work.

One misconception women have about working on a job site is they can dress casually, but this can create distractions, which can be dangerous and result in injuries, she said. 

Because the pipes are so heavy, steamfitting is a two-person trade, and workers are heavily reliant on their partner's full attention, according to Gonzalez.

Weather conditions are tough, especially since steamfitters often run maintenance on various systems during the opposing season. They are in the boiler room during the summer and on the roof working on air conditioning in the winter.

“It takes a lot of stamina and determination, but it gave me independence I didn’t have in my life,” she said.

Retired steamfitter Debora Gonzalez, second from right, with her construction colleagues

Gonzalez said a prospective tradeswoman should find out as much about the trade as she can and learn about how strong the unions are and to work for the strongest union. Unions have the lowest wage gap between men and women compared to the national average.

Union women often earn 88.7% of what union men earn compared to the national average of 82% for nonunion women, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. The difference is attributable to fewer hours worked due to a woman providing child care or elder care, according to a report from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Any woman can benefit the way I did,” Gonzalez said. “I was often frustrated and tired, but it gave me what I would have not been able to do without it.”

Along with financial independence, she was able to retire at 60 after a 15-year career, something she said she would have been unable to do if she remained in hospitality.

Ironworker Blue Coble

Gonzalez is not the only woman to face initial challenges while transitioning into the trades. When Phoenix native Blue Coble entered ironworking, she said she had to prove that she was not there for a lawsuit or looking for a husband. She said she learned what her voice was and how to stand up for herself.

“I don’t feel like I have to prove myself anymore. I’m there to work, just like them,” she said.

Coble, a former graphics designer, said women entering the trades should have steady patience and work hard, but not hurt themselves in the process.

“Keep your tool belt on,” she said. “It only gets better.”

She said finding the right mentors and allies is ideal, and she has since joined a leadership role in her union and would like to mentor other women who could benefit from a career in the trades.

“They are long days, but it’s worth it,” she said.

Ironworking gave her the ability to travel, she said. She has worked on the Tesla factory in Reno and has been working in Denver this winter.

She said she never thought working in construction was an option growing up, but greater awareness is helping. She said retention is still a problem and women need to be encouraged to stay in the field through mentorship programs.

“I think we still have a long way to go. We’re making a lot of progress and I’m excited to be a part of that change and to help participate in it.”

Building An Interest From A Young Age

Tools & Tiaras founder and Director Judaline Cassidy

Organizations around the country have been increasingly encouraging more women to enter the trades. While the average age of women joining Oregon Tradeswomen is mid- to late 20s, a new organization out of New York City offers a program that targets girls.

Tools & Tiaras offers monthly classes in a variety of trades for women and girls and offers a three-week-long summer camp for girls for aged 6 to 19, according to Tools & Tiaras founder and Director Judaline Cassidy.

“All the buildings that we inhabit are built by tradespeople and our … infrastructure is falling apart and nobody is coming in to take these jobs,” Cassidy said.

She started the organization last year after she spoke at a women’s conference about the importance of giving a girl a tool and tiara and how that gives her power and independence.

“A girl should be able to have whatever she wants. She can be a girly girl, but also like building stuff like I do,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy’s own journey to become a plumber taught her the importance of letting women be in the trades. She had originally studied plumbing in Trinidad and Tobago, but when she came to the U.S. in 1989, she ended up babysitting and doing other odd jobs.

She was told women, and especially women of color, could not get into unions. Her neighbor encouraged her to enter an apprenticeship program where she was the only woman. She became the first woman to get into the Plumbers Local Union 371 in Staten Island.

She has since been encouraging boys and girls to consider the trades.

“Girls need to develop whatever superpowers they want in construction,” Cassidy said. “I had no confidence in myself when I was younger. I became a plumber and realized how great I am. I realized I’m some badass shit.”