Yes, They Can
The construction trades employed an estimated 1,241,000 women in 2021. While that may seem like a high number, it represents only 11% of all construction trade workers in the U.S. But that percentage includes those working in administrative and office positions; when it comes to tradeswomen working in the field, on job sites, the percentage falls to 4%.
But times are changing, to an extent. Since 2016, there has been a 32% increase in women working in the trades — and a decrease in folks who don’t think they can do the job.
“Every once in a while, I still get that, but for the most part, people are pretty receptive to it,” said Abby Sullivan, who has owned a waste-management business for 11 years. “The biggest part is, I get on the phone talking to people and assuring them that, yes, this girl in the office can talk trash, literally. I never thought that was something I could do. And it’s kind of empowering to be able to be in this industry and be respected for my knowledge and my ability.”
Sullivan started as a school bus driver, but later realized that she wanted to do something on her own. Her CDL license proved to be a natural entry point into starting Affordable Waste Solutions. She started as the main driver and got the same question every woman BusinessWest talked to has heard: ‘you know what you’re doing?’
And the answers are always the same: ‘yes, I do know what I’m doing.’
“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously,” Sullivan said.
But in an industry — actually, a related collection of industries — that desperately need a pipeline of new talent, more women than ever are realizing they can have well-paying, satisfying work in the construction trades, often without taking on the debt of many four-year colleges.
“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously.”
For this issue’s focus on building trades, we spoke to several women in the field — and the teachers and employers who have encouraged them — and heard one resounding message many times over: you have to start somewhere, and confidence is key.
Reaching Them Early
Over the past decade, it’s become more natural to see women on job sites, but all those careers started somewhere. In Chicopee, Carl Ingram is starting at the middle-school level to get girls interested in the vocational programs offered at Chicopee Comprehensive High School. Seventh-graders attend a Career and Technical Education (CTE) fair to gauge what the shops are like, and eighth-graders hear more detailed presentations from each shop teacher about what their shops offer.
“We talk a lot about certifications, we talk about credentialing, we also talk about the CTE areas and the exploratory process, because we feel like the exploratory process is something every kid in Chicopee should do,” Ingram said.
As the CTE director for the city, he went on to explain that freshmen go through a 12-week process where they explore each shop class for a week and later have to pick their top two to choose from later in the second semester. Students not only learn academically in the ‘theory rooms,’ as they’re called, but they also gain hands-on experience in whatever shop they want to participate in: carpentry, metal fabrication, welding, electrical, automotive, advanced manufacturing, and more.
Lia Oliveira, a pipefitter for Adam’s Plumbing and Heating, told BusinessWest a similar story. “I went to Smith Voc in Northampton for high school. I didn’t want plumbing, but we tried every shop for a day, and then you pick your top four for a week, and plumbing was the one. I was like, ‘I can actually learn something new.’ That’s how I got into it. And then, in my junior year of high school, Adams hired me.”
However, not all the women we spoke with knew that early that they would end up in the construction trades. Jes Thayer started out with an art degree and traveled as an artist before the pandemic dried up opportunities. She decided to fall back on the fact that she was once a mechanic and liked to work with her hands.
“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down.”
“I kind of knew that I wanted to be an electrician just because of dealing with cars and the electrical stuff in that, but it was great to get a foundation in all of the building trades through Community Works,” she explained. “They are the ones that helped me find Wayne J. Griffin Electrical, who’s been wonderful to me ever since.”
As a current apprentice, Thayer has gained the ability to feel more confident in her role, explaining that she feels more comfortable in the electrical trade than she did in many automotive shops.
“People tried to take tools right out of my hands, which is a big pet peeve. But here, I think being on the team that I have, they’re giving me the tools, and they’re asking me to show people that are younger than me. It’s about experience and taking leadership opportunities,” she said. “It’s really great to have my company do that, and since I’ve been on the site, we have great morale and have really got each others’ backs.”
Women face many challenges when it comes to working in a male-dominated industry — particularly women of color, who say they have faced discrimination in hiring and employment and experience sexual harassment and gender or racial bias on the job.
But with the increasing number of women on job sites, there’s a stronger sense of community when it comes to these issues, especially sexual harassment.
“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down,” Oliveira said. “It’s a lot easier to deal with that stuff. I know a lot of women get scared coming into construction, thinking that they’re going to have to deal with it, but we don’t have to deal with it. They take care of it.”
Tracy Routhiee, a senior project manager for Fontaine Brothers, added that it’s important to have a support system that has everyone’s back and strengthens the entire team by cultivating camaraderie and standing up for what’s right.
However, it’s also important to begin with a measure of a confidence, said Pat Sweitzer, operations manager for Sweitzer Construction, who told BusinessWest that as long as women carry themselves with confidence and respect the work, men will respect them in turn.
“It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”
“I did have one case where that did not occur,” she recalled. “I found that, as long as I stood up for myself, the dynamic changed, and the respect was then forthcoming to me on that particular project. It was an interesting experience for me to have that happen and then realize, ‘wait a minute, I know what I’m doing, and I know how to do this.’”
Building a Future
Liz Wambui, director of Diversity and Community Impact for Fontaine Brothers, added that stepping into a new environment, especially one where people may not take a woman seriously, can cause something like imposter syndrome. She said women in construction may have moments where they question if they’re good enough or doing the right thing, but the solution begins with reframing one’s mind and not taking no for an answer.
Most of the women we spoke with explained that, once they get out of their own way, the doors and opportunities are endless, and the feeling of success after completing a project is one of the most satisfying experiences in this industry.
Charlene Metcalf, accountant for Fontaine Brothers, said that, even though she’s not directly on the sites, she is proud to drive by different places that Fontaine Brothers has built and can’t help but share with others that she was a part of that.
Kailee Grigas, a laborer at the firm, agreed. “That’s exactly what happened when I was at MGM. I said, ‘oh, I was there working on that building.’”
Currently, Fontaine Brothers and subcontractors are rebuilding and joining DeBerry and Homer elementary schools in Springfield. The new DeBerry Homer Elementary School will be a state-of-the-art, three-story, 155,000-square-foot school that will serve approximately 920 students from pre-K to grade 6. Both elementary schools will be consolidated into this one building, but each school will maintain its individual identity. Shared spaces and resources include the gym, library, and cafeteria, but the schools will have separate academic and support spaces required to maintain independent schools.
Thayer couldn’t help but share her excitement about the new school with BusinessWest. “To build a school, a lot of things have to come together, but it’s also really exciting. I came from building an Amazon building before this, and it’s kind of like, eh, we’re being pushed to do this really fast, and everyone’s kind of got their own agenda. But here, it’s where kids are going to be learning. It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”
Routhiee agreed, adding that, when she’s worked as a project manager for other schools that Fontaine has built, the teachers and principals are always full of gratitude.
And that sense of gratification at finished projects is a real, tangible benefit of being in this field, along with others the women who spoke with BusinessWest mentioned, including good wages and benefits, networking, travel, and more.
Speaking of networking and travel, one of the biggest conferences for women in the trades — Tradeswomen Build Nations — is held in Las Vegas. Closer to home, Girls in Trade is a state-sponsored event that was held at Dean Tech High School in Holyoke this year. Girls in the CTE programs at Chicopee Comp were able to attend with Amber Patruno, the CTE Inclusion teacher. Patruno explained that the girls listened to a lecture on the benefits of being in a trade, but also tested their soft skills with a scavenger hunt throughout the networking portion.
“Within the scavenger hunt, there were certain questions to ask the representatives and certain things to look for within their display, which I thought was phenomenal because it really intrigued the girls to not just walk past the booth,” she added. “It’s like, ‘hey, I want to ask you this question,’ which got them information, but also got them more interested in what each trade had to offer at that point.”
One student who went on the field trip said it was more useful than a college fair because the tradeswomen were able to answer whatever questions she and her peers had about the building trades.
“When you’re in an atmosphere like that with a lot of people, especially for me, it was like, ‘woah, OK,’ she said. “I had to take a step back and tell myself, ‘OK, let’s do this; calm down, one step at a time,’ and I got through it. And I realized, maybe this isn’t all that bad. It might look scary at first, but once you slowly test the waters, you’re good.”
Show Them Who’s Boss
That’s how all girls interested in the trades should approach the situation at hand, the student added.
“We’re all equal. I don’t really care who you are; we’re all human beings,” she said. “With that being said, if a man can do something, who says that a woman can’t do the same job? I believe that if you put your head to it, you put your heart to it, you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
Women have always been able to get their hands dirty, but in the construction trades, there’s certainly evidence they’re doing so at a higher rate, although the gender gap remains wide.
To further close that gap will take more education about what these careers offer — and the confidence to say, ‘yes, we can.’