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Building Trades Cover Story

Yes, They Can

 

Women Trade workers

From left, Charlene Metcalf, Kailee Grigas, Tracy Routhiee, Lia Oliveira, Jes Thayer, and Liz Wambui

 

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.

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Pat Sweitzer says girls need confidence to work in the construction trades.

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.”

Girls from Chicopee Comp

Girls from Chicopee Comp were able to attend a trades event to learn more and network.

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.

A Chicopee Comp student

A Chicopee Comp student said the recent trades event helped her step out of her comfort zone.

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.’

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Daily News

WESTFIELD — Westfield State University continues planning for its fall 2021 semester, aiming to welcome more than 2,000 residential students and return to its standard amount (75 %) of classes on-ground. Westfield State leadership indicates the university’s plans to return to normal are synchronous with the growing availability and administering of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“New and returning students can expect an on-campus population and activity level in the fall that is more indicative of Westfield State’s normal campus culture,” said Interim President Roy H. Saigo.

Saigo said the university is strongly encouraging all students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated as Westfield State awaits release of the Massachusetts Higher Education Control Plan. Once announced, the control plan’s guidance will help the University finalize the finer points of its Fall 2021 semester, prioritizing the health and safety of its full campus community.

“Westfield State University looks forward to offering the majority of academic and student-life experiences on campus, as we realize the important role those play in our students’ overall experience and growth here,” he noted.

As it prepares for fall 2021, the University anticipates the gradual return to a more robust on-campus workforce, beginning in May and carrying through to the end of August.

Coronavirus

The Grass Is Greener

By Mark Morris

Brian Campedelli

Brian Campedelli says the pandemic has definitely contributed to a spike in landscaping business.

On his daily commute from Wilbraham to East Longmeadow, Dave Graziano has never seen lawns as green as they are this year — even with the recent lack of rain. And as project manager for the landscape division of Graziano Gardens, he knows a thing or two about green lawns.

“More than ever, people are working on their homes and their yards,” Graziano said. “Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

BusinessWest spoke with several area landscape contractors who say their residential business is booming this year. With people spending so much time at home, yard projects — both large and small — that were delayed in the past are now getting done.

“There’s definitely a correlation between COVID-19 and a spike in our business,” said Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping. “People are stuck at home and want to enhance their lifestyle, so they are improving their yards.”

For some homeowners, the scale of yard projects has gone far beyond replacing some shrubs or reseeding a lawn. Contractors are finding most of their business has shifted to hardscape projects, such as stone patios, stairways, and outdoor kitchens. Projects like these can cost around $20,000, with larger and more elaborate designs exceeding $100,000. For one project, Campedelli and his crew are working on a “massive patio” with an overhang attached to the house to shelter a bar underneath.

“We’re installing a TV with surround-sound speakers, as well as a firepit so they can chill out next to their pool.”

Where patios already exist, Campedelli said some homeowners want to rip out the existing structures and start fresh with new construction, while others enhance what they have by adding a firepit or accent lighting.

According to Gary Courchesne, president of G & H Landscaping, accent lighting has been in high demand in recent years. Also known as low-voltage accent lighting, it’s the subtle lighting that can enhance a home’s aesthetics, safety. and security.

“Because they’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, they’re way ahead in their yardwork projects.”

“As important as the safety and security features are, about 90% of the time, people choose accent lighting for aesthetic reasons,” Courchesne explained.

Improvements like lighting help owners to better enjoy their property now, while boosting curb appeal if they ever want to sell. Real-estate website Homes.com estimates that, when homeowners install accent lighting, they can recoup about 50% of their investment to the eventual resale value of the home. The return on investment for patios and decks can range from 30% to 73%.

No matter what project homeowners choose, they all have the same objective: low maintenance. Courchesne said some of his customers have asked for “no-maintenance” shrubs. While those don’t exist, he and his crew design layouts with reduced maintenance in mind.

“For example, instead of filling around the shrubs with mulch, which needs replacing every year, we’ll use stones,” he said. “People are definitely leaning toward designs that look nice and are easy to maintain.” 

Graziano echoed that point, noting that, when he replaces old shrubs with new ones, his customers want landscapes that are easy to care for and do not require lots of maintenance. “Everyone has busy lives, and they don’t want to be burdened with spending too much time on yard care,” he said.

For many years, sprinkler systems have been an effective way to maintain lawns with minimal effort and continue to be popular this year, especially newer, more efficient models.

“People who did not have sprinkler systems are getting them installed,” Courchesne said, “and those who own systems but haven’t run them much are using them more this year.”

Growing Revenues

While landscape companies are busy with plenty of projects, it’s not exactly business as usual.

Each day starts with making sure workers have the proper face masks and other personal protective equipment they’ll need for that day. In the past, a crew might ride together to a job, but state guidelines now mandate one person per vehicle, and shared equipment must be disinfected in between users. Contractors have adjusted to all these extra steps because they are grateful to be considered an essential business.

That essential status wasn’t a given at first, though. Back in March, when Gov. Charlie Baker released the first round of essential industries that could remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, the landscape industry was not explicitly listed. The guidelines allowed for some interpretation that would include them, such as support of essential construction projects.

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

Gary Courchesne says accent lighting is becoming more popular

So a coalition of landscapers, golf-course superintendents, and related professionals formed the Green Industry Alliance of Massachusetts (GIA) and appealed to the governor to specifically identify landscaping as an essential industry. The group’s argument centered around the short time window that spring presents for fertilizing, as well as controlling mosquitos, ticks, and other invasive species. The GIA also noted that many homeowners who are physically unable to take on lawn care depend on outside companies to maintain their property.

Shortly after the appeal, the governor declared landscapers essential providing they follow CDC guidelines.

Courchesne said the initial confusion of whether or not they could start their season resulted in some starts and stops in the beginning, but his company is now up to full speed and adjusting to the new protocols.

“Normally, we start the day with our full staff gathered around a conference table,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in smaller groups out in our yard, so even if there was an infection, it’s not spreading to everyone.” 

In early March, before the governor had ruled on landscapers’ status, Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping, temporarily closed his business over concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

“We closed for three weeks to make sure all our people were healthy,” he said, noting that this decision put his business behind in some of its early spring projects. “We’re scrambling now to get bark mulching done and plant seasonal flowers and such.”

Campedelli said his company also lost some work early in the spring due to delays caused by COVID-19, but he understands the changing nature of the virus and the guidelines. “We stay current on the latest requirements regarding COVID-19, and we make sure to share those with our workers as they happen.”

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

A few landscapers say hardscape projects are surging.

Since the go-ahead in March, Campedelli said his company is so busy, he would hire 10 more people if he could. Having enough workers is also a constant challenge for Omasta, who has 30 workers on staff but would like to add six or eight more.

Several contractors said one particular challenge in finding workers this year involves the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which allows unemployed workers to collect an additional $600 per week through late July. While they all agree the program has merits and is important to help those who are struggling, they also point out that the additional $600 a week keeps some people on the sidelines who would otherwise be working.

Sometimes, filling open jobs is difficult because of the nature of the work. Graziano said the industry has been the same for more than 50 years, and it’s not for everyone. “Either you like to put a shovel in the ground, move mulch around and install pavers, or you don’t,” he told BusinessWest.

A typical landscaping season can run nine months, with three winter months dedicated to snow plowing. As Omasta pointed out, the length of the season is always tied to weather, which determines how early they start in the spring and how late they can work in the fall.

Even when the season is in full swing, rain is a constant variable to consider, Courchesne added. “There was one week in May when, out of six work days, it rained four of them.”

Home Games

When the rain clears, people are looking to get outside, but they’re not ready to stray too far. Until there is more certainty about the coronavirus, many are choosing not to go away on vacation.

Because of this uncertainty, Omasta said, his customers have made the decision to stay put rather than spending a week at the Cape.

“They’re telling me they want to stay home and work on some improvement projects so they can enjoy their backyard this summer,” he noted.

It’s not unusual for homeowners to want a big improvement project and then procrastinate on making the final decision. Courchesne said this year seems different.

“I’m seeing people with less hesitation than normal in their purchasing attitude,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re home, so let’s do this.’”

Because more people are home, even working from there, he added, they are realizing their home is not such a bad place — and they want to make it even better.

And that has made this a different kind of year for this industry.

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