For this year’s Women in Construction Week (WIC Week), which runs from March 5-11, we spoke with three women—Nicole Jetson, Allison Camper, and Lena Rowe—who work in the construction trades for McKinstry. Below are excerpts from that interview, covering their careers in construction, their experiences as women in the trades, and their thoughts on how to increase representation of women in their industry.
What do you do?
Nicole Jetson: At the moment, I bounce around quite a bit within the sheet-metal trade, which makes me well-rounded. I’ve done HVAC work, welding and fabricating in the shop, and worked with RTS (Robotic Total Station) equipment as well. It’s really fun. It’s one trade, but there are a lot of different avenues within that.
Allison Camper: I started as a sheet-metal apprentice and worked my way through the apprenticeship there. A while back, I also started learning how to use RTS—which is the surveying equipment we use to take info from detailed drawings directly to the field without having to lay out by hand. Now, I manage the day-to-day scheduling of RTS equipment as well as training of employees on RTS.
Lena Rowe: I’m a commercial plumber, which means I work with all different sorts of piping: brazing, soldering, all of that stuff.
How did you decide to work in the trades, and how was your first day?
Nicole: I was a single parent, new in Washington, working two jobs and not making ends meet. At one of those jobs, I had a friend who would visit me and eventually he gave me a number and said I should look into sheet-metal. I went through the apprenticeship, signed up with the union, and I got my first job a year later. It was a little intimidating at first. I wore the wrong stuff on my first day, and they let me work that day, but they just had me read everything I could possibly read, even ladder tags. I enjoy it; I’ve always worked very hard and never been afraid of hard work. I’ve been with McKinstry since 2009.
Allison: My ex-boyfriend talked me into this field, to be honest. I was working at Starbucks for a minimum wage, and I couldn’t even afford the gas in my big rig to get to work. My boyfriend had just joined the sheet-metal union and he said, “You’re mathematical, you’re mechanical, I really think you would enjoy this.” Exploring this career was the best decision I ever made. The first couple of weeks were kind of terrifying. The first job I was on has seven buildings—it was huge! I showed up with wrong kind of boots on the first day and ended up getting sent home, but I learned quickly from there. I’ve been with McKinstry ever since day one—I’m a lifer.
Lena: I like to build stuff. Always have, always will. I figured I should get paid for it too, since it’s all I do. Ever since I can remember I’ve been building. I’ve been in plumbing since 2002, and I’ve been with McKinstry since 2005. I remember my first day back in 2002, as an apprentice going out on my first job. It was really fun and I couldn’t wait. My first job with McKinstry was a big high-rise, and that was awesome too.
What’s been your favorite part of working in the trades?
Nicole: Jobs with exposed ductwork and lots of stainless steel are really nice to look at. Also, some of those big, big things we used to build in the shop and then put out piece by piece, those were pretty incredible. They were huge—they couldn’t have gotten out of the building if we kept them intact.
Allison: A while ago, when I went to the Spokane office for the first time, I went by the cubicles and I saw these installed panels that I had built and pre-rusted in the shop as an apprentice. I had to take some pictures—it was so cool!
Lena: My favorite part of this job is that, every day, you can step back and look at what you just built. It’s awesome. When you get done building something, even just a small little section, it’s extremely satisfying and great to see.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many women working in the trades. What’s been your experience?
Lena: I don’t see things through a gender perspective, and I never really have. The only time it crosses my mind is when people bring it up, and bring up the percentages. I think it’s all about perspective and how you go into it. If you’re thinking about the gender thing exclusively, then it’s going to make you stumble. Think of yourself as a worker first. If you focus on the work and like what you do, you’re driven by it, and it tweaks you, then you just don’t have time for anything else. Just because you’re a small percentage doesn’t mean you can’t do the job.
Nicole: As a woman on a jobsite, people often think I’m a flagger—who are the gals on the street who control traffic on a jobsite. That’s a more-traditional “female in construction” role. Don’t get me wrong, flaggers have a really tough job, but it’s annoying that that’s the only thing people think I do when they see me on a jobsite.
How should we encourage more women to consider working in the trades?
Lena: Reaching out to high schoolers is the key for getting women in the trades. I think jobsite or shop or office visits from high school kids—as well as tradespeople going out to schools—would be really effective. Bringing actual materials in so these kids can get their hands on stuff would also be key. If you like that, you’ll know. A four-year degree isn’t everyone’s path.
Nicole: I’d say we should emphasize how there are many different things you can do in the trades. You learn every day, and you’re not bored or cooped up in an office. By the time you retire, you still won’t know everything. That’s really intriguing to me. It’s always different. I enjoy the constant change and the constant learning. I also think tradespeople should be going to high schools. Students would know about opportunities in the trades if they did that. I had no idea about this line of work when I was that age.
Allison: I’d say we should just emphasize that there’s crazy high demand for trade workers, and working in the trades is a lot of fun. There are so many different avenues to explore.