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Women at work: Booming construction market means more opportunities in the trades

  • 12 min to read
Women at work: Booming construction market means more opportunities in the trades
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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 like 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.”

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MADISON COLLEGE

Sandy Thistle is the co-program director for the Madison College Construction and Remodeling program.

Intentional recruiting

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 years old.

“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.

“There is a lot of construction work going on in the area,” Branson said. “It’s not going to slow down anytime soon.”

Job openings in construction and manufacturing in the South Central Workforce Development Board area, which includes Dane County, should increase by 15 percent and 3 percent, respectively, each year until 2024, according to the Department of Workforce Development.

The DWD plans to use a federal grant to increase the number of women and minorities in construction apprenticeships with an emphasis on the southeast Wisconsin and Madison area, said spokesman Tyler Tichenor.

The agency will also partner with the Chicago Women in the Trades to develop materials to recruit more women to pursue the skilled trades, Tichenor said.  

While jobs are plentiful in the 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.

That includes recruiting outside the white male population in Dane County, Clingan said.

“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.”

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MADISON COLLEGE

Mairead Thistle is a Madison College student in the Construction Techniques II class.

‘Snail’s pace’ change

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. But maternity leave and the perception of the trades as male-dominated fields are uniquely female concerns.

It wasn’t until this year that the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, which includes Wisconsin, changed its maternity policy. Prior to the change, a pregnant woman would qualify for $250 per week for short-term disability.

Union members were notified March 19 that women in the Carpenters and Joiners Welfare Fund are entitled to $800 per week for six weeks for traditional delivery, eight weeks for a Cesarean delivery and $800 per week for certain conditions during pregnancy or post-delivery.

Tracy Madden, communications director for the union, said no one had thought to ask for a change in maternity policy.

“I think maybe women in all unions, their numbers have never been big enough for them to feel like they could … make a change,” Madden said.

Daycare is also a challenge for parents working in the trades and can affect both men and women, though traditionally the job falls to women, Madden said.

Big Step recently partnered with the Madison Metropolitan School District for Career Pathways In Construction. The program sends trade workers to Madison’s four comprehensive high schools for hands-on learning in trades like plumbing and electrical work.

Freespirit said the industry is improving in terms of recruiting women, improving the work environment and retaining women but not fast enough.

“It is moving,” Freespirit said. “It is just at a snail’s pace.”


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OFS

April Rios

‘I didn’t need help’

For three months, April Rios has been working on an Operation Fresh Start construction crew building a house in Sun Prairie.

She is one of three young women on the crew finishing their high school coursework through the alternative program that also trains students in the construction or conservation fields. The program has a 96 percent placement rate and an 86 percent retention rate in apprenticeships.  

“When I was in high school, I just realized I wasn’t going to have enough credits to graduate,” said Rios, who previously attended Madison La Follette High School. “I just came here to really graduate and then I started to get into wanting to be a welder.”

Rios is pursuing a competitive spot on the OFS graduate crew, which is hired for construction work in the area. She is looking forward to earning an income, Rios said. Pursuing a career in the skilled trades is lucrative, the main reason Rios said she is ready to get to work. Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters can take home an annual salary of $57,070, according to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“I’m excited to have my own life and have my own career,” Rios said.

If Rios continues on this path, she will be one of a few women who entered the trades following their time at OFS. Just three women, compared to 25 men, entered the trades out of a January 2017 graduating class of 105.

Rios said she’s aware there are fewer women on job sites, but she has never encountered a problem. Instead, there are “little things” that make her aware of her gender.

“Sometimes, I’m carrying something that’s heavy and a guy will come up to me and pick it up or take it from my hand,” Rios said. “I’m appreciative that they do that but, sometimes it makes me feel like, I had it you know? I didn’t need help.”

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OFS

Shakira Davis, 18, (left) and Arianna Long, 18, both Operation Fresh Start students, work on mudding around the foundation of a house in Sun Prairie.

‘I prefer to be here using a hammer’

When the traditional classroom setting was not meeting the academic needs of Arianna Long and Shakira Davis, they both turned to Operation Fresh Start.

“I prefer to work, so the regular school setting wasn’t for me,” said Long, 18, who mentioned she has perfect attendance at OFS. “Coming here was probably one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. I love it way better than regular schooling.”

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OFS

Shakira Davis

While Long prefers construction, Davis primarily works on a conservation crew.

“I just like being here because I like being around a lot of people,” Davis, 18,  said. “I like how your supervisor always builds a bond with you.”

Long and Davis were two of three women on a crew building a home in Sun Prairie last month. Long said her supervisor treats her the same as the men on the crew and does not close off opportunities because of her gender.

Long’s decision to work construction surprised her peers.

“When I first came to OFS, and I told everyone I was doing construction they were like, ‘You’re crazy. Construction is so hard,’” Long said. “It’s not hard and it’s not bad at all. I prefer to be here using a hammer.”  

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OFS

Arianna Long

But neither Long nor Davis wants to continue in the trades. Long hopes to pursue a career as a veterinarian and Davis wants to be a dental assistant.

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

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H&H INDUSTRIES

Brandi Johnson, sheet metal worker, (left) shows Austin Seymer, sheet metal worker, how to caulk the PVC piping in the shop at H&H Industries in Madison.

‘Hopefully soon it won’t be story-worthy’

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. “I’m not putting on a dirty sweatshirt because it’s my husband’s.”

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.

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H&H INDUSTRIES

Brandi Johnson

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.

“I like seeing just a simple piece of metal and in the end it could be a small piece we could put in our pocket or it could be a huge piece you could drive a car in,” Johnson said. “In the field, it’s cool to go into a brand new building and a couple of months later, there’s full duct runs and you can never believe it was empty before.”

Of the 524 active sheet metal worker apprenticeships in the state in 2017, six were held by women, according to Department of Workforce Development data.

“It’s just nontraditional and hopefully soon it won’t be story-worthy,” Johnson said of women working in the trades.

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H&H INDUSTRIES

KB Amador, steamfitter, works on a project at H&H Industries in Madison.

‘What’s that lady doing here?’

KB Amador’s interest in welding grew out of a desire to build sculptures, but it wasn’t until a mentor, a steamfitter of 40 years, encouraged her that she decided to pursue the trade as a career.

“I really didn’t have enough self-confidence to do it because it’s not really a trade for women, generally speaking,” Amador, 32, said. “It’s just really stereotypical male dominant, and I didn’t grow up with people that welded.”

Welding techniques are used by steamfitters who repair, install and maintain pipes that carry liquids and gases.

“I love welding, flipping my hood all day long and just welding, welding, welding. I could probably do that for like three years and ... not get bored,” Amador said. “But in all reality, problem solving and having to communicate with customers and more using welding as a tool instead of it being my main profession is a much better fit for me.” 

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H&H INDUSTRIES

KB Amador

She praised H&H Industries for fostering a positive work environment toward women but said that “heads turn” when she is at a new location for the first time. While working at a local hospital, an employee expressed his surprise to Amador’s foreman that “they let women work with you now.”

“I guess it’s just hard for people to grasp that there is a female on the premises,” Amador said.  “I don’t know if they question the work, just subconsciously, they’re like, ‘Hey, what’s that female doing? What’s that lady doing here?’”

But she encourages other women to not let the perception of the skilled trades be a barrier.

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“If you have something in your mind that you want to do, then you should do it and at least try,” Amador said. “I never would have thought in a million years that this is what I would be doing with my life, but I really enjoy my job.”

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MADISON COLLEGE

Student Marie Ptak (right) uses a circular saw as classmate Martin Gutierrez looks on during a Construction Techniques II class at Madison College.

‘Oh crap, they gave me a girl’

While interning with remodeling companies, Marie Ptak said she felt the need to prove herself within the first 15 minutes on the job.

“You’d see on the guy’s face, ‘Oh crap, they gave me a girl and what do I do with her?’” said Ptak, 24.

To compensate, she would grab all the tools needed for that particular job to demonstrate she knew what she was doing. Ptak is currently a student at Madison College in the construction and remodeling program, which teaches students the basics of building a house from the ground up.

Even in a supportive educational environment, Ptak said she can’t help but think in the back of her mind that there are not many women working in construction. She recently made a career switch from cosmetology, which had “run its course.”

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MADISON COLLEGE

Marie Ptak

“I grew up doing some odd jobs around the house with my parents and I always remembered how satisfying it was to build something, or make something old new again,” Ptak said.

With just one class left in the fall, Ptak hopes to pursue historical restoration work. She recently accepted an internship with the the Point Reyes National Seashore Association in California and will be restoring windows and roofs on some historic structures on the grounds.

Embedded gender norms had Ptak’s friends second guessing her career path.

“When I made the career switch from cosmetology to carpentry, when I would tell even my most progressive of friends … they would pause and say, ‘Oh, so you mean interior design?’” Ptak said.

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MADISON COLLEGE

Student Jade Green works on drywalling during a Construction Techniques II class at Madison College.

‘It can be fixed up and usable again’

Jade Green is enrolled in Madison’s College’s construction and remodeling program to inform her future work as an interior designer.

“When I started this program, I was really nervous,” said Green, 21. “I went from a women-dominated program to a male-dominated program.”

Green, who earned a degree in interior design from Madison College last year, said the construction program’s three female instructors eased her fears and exemplified that women can be successful in the skilled trades.

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MADISON COLLEGE

Jade Green

She noted that the men in her class are also learning that women are just as capable of doing the work.

“The women in the program have proved it to the other guys in the program,” Green said. “We can lay out a wall just as well as you can. We can swing a hammer just as well as you can.”

Green hopes to pursue residential interior design once she graduates from Madison College in May.

“I like seeing things go from grungy — most people think they’re not usable because they’re not pretty anymore — and making it function and seeing the new side of it and that it can be fixed up and usable again,” Green said.

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MADISON COLLEGE

Student Sunhee Han said that once she finishes the program at Madison College, she hopes to flip houses, but she will also look for jobs.

‘The job is tough, but also very delicate’

Building a house is on Sunhee Han’s (right) bucket list, and she is on her way to gaining the skills to accomplish that goal.

Han, 59, moved to Madison in 1989 with her husband and daughter from Seoul, South Korea. She enrolled in Madison College’s construction and remodeling program following the impeachment of South Korea’s former president Park Geun Hye in December 2016.

“I think the political scandal forced me to gain a strong mentality and pursue my dreams,” Han said.

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MADISON COLLEGE

Sunhee Han

Once Han finishes the program, she hopes to flip houses, but she will also look for jobs. She encourages other women to pursue skilled trades, which she said is better off when men and women collaborate.

“I think the job is tough, but also very delicate, so men and women together can make better results,” Han said.

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MADISON COLLEGE

Mairead Thistle, student, works on a project for the Garver Feed Mill during a Construction Techniques II class at Madison College.

‘It’s mostly just annoying. I can handle that’

Navigating the perception of women in the skilled trades does not worry Mairead Thistle (left), 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.”

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MADISON COLLEGE

Mairead Thistle

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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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.