For this year’s Women in Construction Week (WIC Week), we spoke with five women—Michelle Wilson, Emily Orona, Mariss Stevens, Keyla Santiago and Ashley Fortune—who work as apprentices in the construction trades for McKinstry.
For those who are unfamiliar, apprenticeship is a system in which workers train on-the-job—earning wages and doing productive work—while also taking courses and mastering their craft. At McKinstry, apprentices on jobsites perform vital work and apprenticeship programs are a valuable source of jobsite innovation.
Below are excerpts from interviews with these five apprentices:
Q: How would you describe/summarize your current position in the trades with McKinstry? Why did you choose to work in the trades?
Michelle Wilson: My current position is HVAC sheet metal worker—fifth year apprentice.
Emily Orona: I am a commercial plumber apprentice, currently setting bathroom trim and fixtures. I chose to be a plumber because you always need a plumber. I am fortunate to be part of the McKinstry team. I was dispatched to McKinstry a year and a half ago. If it’s possible, I’d like to spend the rest of my career here.
Mariss Stevens: I am a third year sprinkler fitter apprentice. I’m currently working at a high-rise condominium tower learning how to install CPVC piping for the sprinkler system. Growing up, I experienced two house fires in which I lost everything (including pets). It’s rewarding to go to work every day knowing what I’m doing saves people from going through what I went through.
Keyla Santiago: I am a first year steamfitter/pipefitter apprentice. I assist with installing and assembling various piping systems. After years of retail, customer service and food service work I wanted a career change. While I’ve enjoyed my work, during those years, I wanted to obtain a career in which I could build a financially stable future for myself.
Ashley Fortune: I am currently a third year steamfitter apprentice. I chose to work in the trades to provide for my two kids. As a single mom, I was living paycheck to paycheck and feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere. Also, I am the type of girl that likes to do things with my hands and learn. I’ve grown so much during my apprenticeship—I am now able to lay out a whole floor and install pipe solo. I know more about the systems we work on and what it takes to be good at the job.
Q: What’s been your favorite part of working in the trades?
Michelle: My favorite part about working in the trades—besides the money—is the camaraderie with my fellow tradespeople. There’s also the pension, which was and is a huge factor in why I went into the trades.
Emily: My favorite part about working in the trades is the reward of seeing the end result of my craftsmanship, or as I should say “craftwomanship.”
Mariss: My favorite part of working in the trades is feeling valuable. Every job I’m on (whether it be for a week, a month, or a year), my time and work has helped benefit that job in some way, which will later help benefit the customers and tenants occupying that building. Being able to work hard all day installing pipe and taking a step back at the end of the day looking at my work makes me feel like I’m a good asset to the team.
Keyla: My favorite part of working in the trades is learning my trade. I’m a first year apprentice and am considered pretty green. I’m grateful to have been paired with journeymen who are patient, take time to explain and teach me different aspects of our job.
Ashley: My favorite part of working in the trades is learning. I like to know how things work and why. Being a steamfitter, I get to know how the building is heated and cooled by the equipment and pipe we install. I also get to work with my hands and feel like I’m a part of something bigger than me; something I never thought I would be a part of. What I get to do each day is pretty cool.
Q: Unfortunately, there aren’t many women working in the trades. What’s been your experience, and how should we encourage more women to work in the trades?
Michelle: My overall experience has been a positive one. That being said, it’s not easy. If it was, I probably wouldn’t like it. I like a challenge and am not intimidated by a still male-dominated trade. As with all people—money makes people look. Most jobs are still unfair with women’s wages, but the trades are fair. They offer secure pensions for retirement and stable working opportunities.
Emily: My experience with being one of the few women on the job is that it’s empowering to know I can keep up with boys. It’s fun as well. To encourage more women to get into the trades, we have to speak up about it and share our experiences with young women. I wish I would’ve joined right out of high school. I love being able to support myself and it gives me hope for a bright future.
Mariss: As a woman in the trades, my experience has been amazing. I’ve never experienced any type of harassment or “unfairness” due to being a woman. Being a woman on the jobsite isn’t bad like it used to be. I want to be paid the same as a man for doing the same job and I want to be treated with the same respect as a man—I don’t need special treatment. A lot of issues women have with employment in the trades revolve around child care, single moms especially, so addressing that might encourage more women to work in the trades. I would also recommend attending a lot of high school job fairs to inform students that there are other options than just college.
Keyla: As a woman, my experience has been relatively good. However, I won’t sugarcoat that it’s been hard. Working in the trades has required a mental shift in my part. If you understand the concept of code-switching, that is something that I’ve done to a certain extent. There are a wide array of personalities and age ranges within the trades, many of whom can be stuck in their ways, which can lead to interpersonal problems between co-workers. My basic code on the jobsite is that we’re all here to do our jobs, so no matter our differences, I know that I can learn from anyone who has considerably more experience than me.
The best way to get women interested in the trades is to talk to other women actually in the trades. After all, I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for another woman. Community engagement is the only real answer. This means talking to young girls at career fairs, talking to girls’ STEM groups, Girl Scouts, and—most importantly to me—reaching out to minority groups and LGBTQ groups. Teaching young people that there’s a space for women and women-identifying people in this male-dominated field is important, as is education about the financial stability that comes with working in the trades. A good resource for women and women-identifying people is the Washington Women in Trades Association. Women need to know that there are others like ourselves whom we can support and lean on.
Ashley: I can tell you this, the first day on the jobsite is not an easy one. It’s like you’re the new kid at school but are completely different than the “normal.” I get nervous because I know that there are people out there that don’t think a woman can do this type of work. You definitely have to prove yourself almost every day you are there. You also sometimes feel like you are held to a higher standard then the men just because you are a woman. I have noticed, though, that if you are willing to learn and actually want to do the job for yourself, then men are more receptive to you if you are female.
Working in the trades as a woman gives you a sense of independence, strength, and confidence. When you choose to be a part of something bigger, you can set yourself and your family up for success. When you can walk into a room and know what to do without a “man,” it feels empowering. This job has definitely given me more confidence in all aspects of my life. You know how to fix things, you’re not afraid of a tape measure or power tools and you can work with your hands to get stuff done.
Since it’s Women in Construction Week, what’s one final thing you’d like the world to know about women in construction? Do you think there are any major misconceptions about women in construction?
Michelle: I think a misconception of women in the trades might be that we’re all trying to be “one of the guys.” I work hard and enjoy working—I don’t need to be a man to do so. I was a diesel mechanic in the Army 20 years ago and an airline mechanic with Boeing before I started this apprenticeship. I wanted a better future and I saw that with the trades.
Emily: I’d like the world to know how important it is to get more woman in the trades. I love my career and wouldn’t change it for the world. I have met lifelong friends in my union; not just brothers, sisters as well. I think the main misconception of women in the trades is that we aren’t strong enough or can’t do the same work as men. We can and we do!
Mariss: Any woman can be a construction worker if they set their mind to it and that’s what they want to do—just like anyone can be a doctor if that’s what they want to do. I just work hard, hustle and try to be the best at everything I do while giving 110 percent.
Keyla: There may be a misconception in regards to women being able to keep up with the men. That is not true. We may not be as physically strong as men, but that’s not everything that makes up the job. We are just as capable.
Ashley: More women in construction is a good thing. Women are detail-oriented and we see things that men don’t at times. Women tend to be more organized on the jobsite as well. I know that there have been situations where I knew what to do and the men on the jobsite didn’t. The more diverse the trades are, the better off we all are as a whole. Two brains are better than one and two different views & ways of thinking are also better than one.
I think the misconception is that woman don’t want to work hard or they are just here to do material-handling. I’ve been on jobsites where I am the one doing the “hard” work and the men are doing the “easy” stuff. Women work hard and sometimes even harder just to prove that we are “worthy” of being there. Most women I’ve talked to are trying to make a living for their family. We’re there to provide.