Construction opens opportunities to women


By ABIGAIL BECKER

The Capital Times

MADISON, Wis.

Sandy Thistle never considered becoming a carpenter before two of her friends started pursuing careers in the skilled trades.

“Lots of people, not just women, still don’t know of this as a serious option,” Thistle said. “There are still stereotypes about who does this work and what this work is.”

Thistle pursued commercial construction, including a stint at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s carpenter shop, and got involved with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 314 to forward her vision of recruiting more women and people of color into the skilled trades. She is now the co-program director for Madison College’s construction and remodeling program.

Not only did Thistle enjoy working in the trades, her job provided family-supporting wages, an aspect of the work she wants to make sure underrepresented populations grasp.

“It was so important to me to be able to have the freedom to make choices about my life that I could make by having a decent income and by being independent,” she said, “and being able to make choices not out of financial or economic restriction but out of true choice.”

Women make up just 4 percent of the national workforce in natural resources, construction and maintenance, according to 2010 Bureau of Labor statistics data. In Wisconsin, women make up 5 percent of the 10,251 active apprenticeships in the trades, according to Department of Workforce Development data as of April 4.

Though local organizations such as Big Step are working to close the gender gap, barriers to entry and retention still exist. Women say lack of awareness, persistent gender stereotypes, responsibilities at home and few examples of women entering the trades can be deterrents.

“Lots of people, not just women, still don’t know of this as a serious option,” Thistle said. “There are still stereotypes about who does this work and what this work is.”

A trained, skilled laborer can find a job just about anywhere in the country right now, said Maggie Freespirit, a journeyman electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 159.

“Just about every trade in the area is looking for skilled workers,” Freespirit said. “Speaking from the union side, we’re looking for anybody.”

During the 2008 recession, which hit the construction business hard, many skilled trade workers left their fields and never returned. In addition, unions did not plan for the future. Freespirit estimated the average age of journeyworkers – people who have completed their apprenticeships – is 45.

“We’re going to have this huge retirement,” Freespirit said.

Compounding the issue, the construction business is back and booming in Wisconsin, said Dave Branson, executive director of the Building and Construction Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin.

While jobs are plentiful in that area, workers are not there to fill them. Bill Clingan, a program coordinator for the workforce development organization Big Step, said the industry understands there are fewer trained workers and employers need to be competitive.

“If you don’t tap into the demographics of the times, including women, then you’re not going to be competitive,” he said. “The other industries aren’t going to sit on their tail and kind of say, ‘Oh please come to us.’ They’re going to go out and get these folks.”

Long hours, the unpredictability of working at different job sites and discomfort that comes from working outside in the heat and cold dissuade both genders from pursuing construction careers.

Working in all types of weather in a job they may not pursue builds a work ethic that translates into other fields, said OFS supervisor Chris Brown.

“It’s just mental toughness and staying on top of their game,” Brown said. “It gives them the confidence when they leave.”

When Brandi Johnson is out running errands wearing her H&H Industries sweatshirt, people sometimes assume her husband works for the Madison-based contractor. “I’ll be like, ‘No, it’s my sweatshirt. I work,’” Johnson said.

Johnson, 38, is a sheet metal worker with previous experience in highway construction. As a first-year apprentice with H&H, she balances working at the shop and on-site while also taking classes through Madison College. She aspires to run her own crews as a foreman.

At night, she and her two children do homework together. It is a lot to balance, but “you just have to be dedicated” and enjoy the work, Johnson said.

Navigating the perception of women in the skilled trades does not worry Mairead Thistle, who wants to pursue electrical work.

Her mother and instructor in Madison College’s construction and remodeling program, Sandy Thistle, has modeled a viable career path by bucking stereotypes.

“It’s stuff I’ll have to do deal with, but I don’t really see that as a deterrent, personally, especially with my mom being my mom,” Thistle, 20, said. “For me, people being gendered and treating me different on a level like that, it’s mostly just annoying. I can handle that.”

With fewer women in the skilled trades, there are not as many female role models, Thistle said, and these jobs are not presented to women. In high school, Thistle said the guidance counselor directed boys to woods classes and girls to arts classes.

“I think a lot of it is kind of unconscious,” Thistle said. “It’s important to sort of recognize that and try and move on and be less biased.”

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