Empowered women empower women: Let’s be the change that makes our trades thrive

03.08.18

Empowered women empower women: Let’s be the change that makes our trades thrive

 

“Are you going to cry or are you going to do something about it?”

Motivation comes from odd places. For Jennifer Gaspersich, a catalytic moment for her was a tough day on a job site. But, her strong will and perseverance, coupled with some real talk from a colleague, motivated her to dig in even harder. Now, she’s a business representative with IBEW 292, spending a good chunk of her time honoring the tradeswomen who came before her, and forging paths for those who will come after.

But just like the hurdles Jennifer cleared, diversifying the construction industry is a steep climb.  As of 2015, women made up 9.1 percent of the construction industry, with 2.4 percent working in construction positions. The industry is daunting to some, or not even on the radar of others. With fewer and fewer high schools not offering trades classes, it’s not surprising that the U.S. is experience a labor shortage.

Despite the barriers, there is hope. As the profiles below demonstrate, more and more women are coming into the trades, and from a variety of referrals, many by girlfriends who have begun careers in the trades, most made possible through union apprenticeship programs. And with more and more women beginning careers or climbing the ranks as engineers, architects, project managers, contractors, union reps and tradespeople, the rank and file is bound to change, too.

“Right now we have 100% employment. We have an aging work force and we’re crying for replacements. Women are an untapped resource and we need them,” says Peter Hilger, faculty director of the Construction Management degree program at the University of Minnesota. Just last year, Minnesota added 9,300 new construction positions.

A critical step toward realizing change is naming it.

At this week’s sold-out, standing-room-only Women Building Success Awards, hundreds of union construction workers, their union advocates, and their employers gathered to recognize, honor and celebrate women’s successes in the construction trades.

But before recognition, honor and celebration were reminders of the past and charges to continue to press for progress:

  1. Demand more of the policies that impact our work. Demand more from the Minnesota State Workforce Development Plan. Demand that mandated participation rates are coupled with recruitment, training and support programs.
  2. Thank that mentor and the people who have helped you get where you are. We’re here on the shoulders of giants.
  3. Lead. Your unions believe in you, and they need you to be the leaders of the future. Recruit new tradesmen and women, start stepping up and making things better on your job site, and start taking on leadership roles, on your job site and within your union.

The awards ceremony coincided with Women in Construction Week, designed to highlight women as a visible component of the construction industry, to raise awareness of the opportunities available to women, and to emphasize the growing role of women in the industry. Special cheers to event organizers – the Minneapolis Building Trades and committee members Jenny Winkelaar, Jennifer Gaspersich, Barb Pecks, Jody Paulson, Christa Mardas, Katie LaPlant, Terri Stave and Josie Vautrin. Here are this year’s award recipients:

Apprentice of the Year

An apprentice is a person who is learning a trade from a skilled employer. They are earning wages while they learn, and with every year of training, they earn a bit more per hour, eventually making journeyworker status and earning full wages for their skilled position. Apprenticeship programs range from three to five years depending on the trade.

Grace Bauman – Ironworkers Local 512

What began as a conversation with a girlfriend about how to earn a better wage with better benefits months later turned into walking the highest beams on U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis. While Grace didn’t know that working as a certified welder ironworker was in her future, it’s not all too surprising. Her grandfather – mom’s dad – was a member of Local 512 for decades and first introduced her to welding. In fact, Grace always knew she wanted to work outside and use her hands. So after a year of technical school, the three-year ironworkers apprentice program (provided at no-cost to new recruits thanks to union investments and dues) was the logical, albeit a bit surprising, next step. Today, you’ll find this 2013 Delano High School grad working for Danny’s Construction on a bridge in Winona. One of the coolest parts of this project? There’s a female operator womanning the heavy equipment Grace works alongside every day.

Kee Brown – International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49

A reliable, rewarding career is important to most folks. But as a single mom, it was essential for Kee. Though she had heard from friends that union careers provided good wages and benefits, it was the new and challenging opportunity that inspired Kee to jump into the operator’s seat of massive crane and begin work with Lunda Construction. Her first job as a union apprentice? Womanning a 2250 Manitowox Crane off a barge on the St. Croix River as she helped construct the new St. Croix Crossing. It’s Kee’s exceptional work ethic and aptitude that earned her Apprentice of the Year honors, driving up to the 49ers training center in Hinckley on days off to get in extra practice. One day, she hopes to operator a tower crane…some 15 stories up in the sky!

Journeyworker of the Year

Carrie Robles – Laborers Local 563

Fourteen years ago, Carrie was cleaning houses. As a newly single mother, she knew that a different career would better allow her to provide for her family. Her undeniable work ethic elevated her to forewoman in 2011 and then to general foreman shortly thereafter, a rare position, especially among women. People immediately describe Carrie as a leader, a problem solver, someone who can effortlessly manage a large crew while maintain productive job site numbers. Then, in 2017, Carrie was promoted again, this time to superintendent. “You in the room tonight can understand how hard this is.” When Carrie isn’t leading by example at work or at home for her kids, she’s working on her vintage Fords or hanging at the cabin.

Women’s Advocate of the Year

Whitney Hunter – IBEW Local 292

As a kid, long before she became a master electrician and journeyworker, Whitney would be working on projects around the house. Her first tool, given to her by her uncle on one trip to the hardware store, was a crowbar. Trades courses in high school, a job working construction after graduation, and the IBEW five-year apprenticeship program were the logical next steps. In 2014, Whitney became forewoman at MSP International Airport working with Premier Electric, and in December 2016, she gave birth to her first child, Harper. If this weren’t impressive enough, what makes Whitney extraordinary is what she does to support other women beyond the jobsite. She co-founded Sisters in Solidarity (SIS), an affinity group for female electricians. SIS members spend their free time wiring Habitat for Humanity houses and volunteering at women’s shelters. Whitney is an advocate for industry policy changes, to make the field even more welcoming to women, and she regularly volunteers at career fairs. Cheers to this strong advocate and all the award recipients and nominees!

Read more union stories, or submit your own, here: https://www.elevateminnesota.org/stories/