Historically, women have been hard to find in the construction industry.
A 2014 National Women’s Law Center report titled, “Women in Construction, Still Breaking Ground,” showed women make up 2.6 percent of workers in construction and extraction occupations, a figure that had not budged in the past 30 years.
The Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters is looking to change that level across its network—with recent efforts in Western New York.
The organization launched the Sisters in the Brotherhood—a six-week, pre-apprenticeship program to promote women in construction throughout New York. The initiative already has gained some traction in Buffalo, which started its pilot program in 2016, officials said.
Last year nine women started the program and seven completed it in Buffalo.
This month, the pilot program of the Sisters in the Brotherhood was completed in Rochester. Locally four women started the program and one completed it.
In total, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, which spans multiple areas of the state, has 18 women apprentices at varying levels of completing a five-year apprenticeship.
The program is directly linked to state mandates by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase the number of women and minorities on every state contract, officials said. For any project with state money involved, a focus on diversity has become paramount.
“It takes a certain person—I don’t care who you are—to be a construction worker,” said Daryl Bodewes, council representative of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. “And I think it takes a certain type of woman too because it’s physical and demanding. There are options out there that maybe they didn’t realize. That’s what our goal is, to go out there and get the word out that there is a place for you in construction.
“Not only do we need to fulfill the mandate (but) obviously there was a need for it.”
The local program is modeled after New Jersey’s program, which has grown from two women to 74 in nearly four years.
“Our pilot in Rochester this year…did we get as many as we wanted? No, but we did come against some challenges,” Bodewes said. “We’re going to do another one, but we also know what our mistakes were …we feel very confident that in the next round there’s going to be more applicants coming in.”
The goal is to add five to 10 women to the Sisters in the Brotherhood program locally each year.
The pre-apprenticeship program encompasses a range of learning, including general carpentry, dock building and pile-driving, cabinetmaking, mill-working and floor installation. It is a six-week program that includes classroom work and hands-on experience, including a visitation of a job site.
“Having a training center helps because you learn about it in books but you also get the hands-on experience,” said Kaleah Duval, a new apprentice in the program.
Each region has its own needs the program will adapt to, said Jomo Akono, council representative of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters.
“Many people in the public have to be educated again on that this is something that can be done and it’s something that’s an open opportunity,” he said. “We’re all in the same council, we’re all under the same brotherhood, (but) every city (and) every town has a totally different operating mechanism.”
The local training center is at 21 Jetview Drive in Chili in a newly renovated space. The program seeks to interest women at a variety of ages, including some considering a new career path.
“It’s a wide range of ages where it will be someone’s second career and maybe they’ll have 20 years to put in, but they’re 20 good years and it’s a great career for them,” said Sue Schultz, council representative of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, based in New Jersey.
One differentiator about women in construction: They may have not been exposed to any kind of building experience, unlike their male counterparts who more often have.
“So even understanding what actually goes on there,” Akono said, “This (program) gives them a hands-on feel, taste and smell.”
Learning construction means having a set of skills that can adapt with the worker, providing a career and stability that is needed for middle class workers, Bodewes said.
“We’re fighting for the middle class right now and construction is middle class work—always has been and probably always will be,” he said. “If you can bring somebody up, maybe they don’t have as much, bought their first car. All of a sudden they’re moving out of an apartment into a house. It’s just propping the middle class up even higher and that’s what we’re all about.”
Jacqueline Potter has been in the construction field for the past 27 years. She went through a four-year apprenticeship and now helps to instruct women in the field.
Working in construction has helped her find pride in herself.
“I think for me personally it’s a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “I can drive by the Hyatt and say I worked on that right where those letters are. I put the glass up there. My son can say, ‘my mom helped build that bridge.’ You build it and you go on, so it’s a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Potter was surprised at how much she took to the work.
“I discovered I liked it,” she said. “I really enjoy it; it’s still very rewarding. You’re going to meet different people, the surroundings are always going to be different, (and) you’re able to travel and work.”
Courtney Kirbis is a third-year apprentice. The work is challenging but worthwhile, she said.
“I think being able to use your brain and your body—there’s not many jobs that you to do both equally,” she said. “Every day going to work I’m proving to myself that there’s something I can do. Even after four years it still feels that way every day, so that’s why it’s great.”
The mental and emotional aspect of construction work has helped Kirbis understand herself in new ways.
“It’s changed my life completely in terms of just about how I feel about myself every day,” she said. “Also the people that I’ve met and the type of work that it is just changes the way you look at the world and the way you feel about yourself.”
Today the council is focused on outreach. Half the battle is helping women and organizations understand construction is an option for them, council representative Schultz said.
“(Women) don’t necessarily think about it as an option, so it’s really changing the mindset of women out there,” she said. “The Carpenters Union: just like it’s an option for men; it’s an option for (women). The guys may already realize (it), but for the women this is new.”
The in-depth training of the pre-apprenticeship program is a reason for businesses around Rochester to take note of the program.
“We have not just women but well-trained workers who happen to be women,” Akono said.
By working in construction, women have a chance to stabilize their current economic situation, and it lays a foundation for their future, Schultz said. That kind of change can affect an entire generation.
“This can be a game-changer for a woman,” she said. “Previously maybe they’re working in jobs—well this is a career. It not only affects that one woman, it affects their kids, (and) it affects their family, their friends and their community, so it really can make a big impact. And (they have) real pride in themselves and in the work that they’re doing.”
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