You don't get 1,600 high and middle school girls together without some squealing, texting and spontaneous dancing. But the phones were barely out on May 18, which was School Girls' Day at the Oregon Tradeswomen's 2018 Career Fair. It was heads down and listen carefully for the girls who had come from as far away as Medford and Bend to the home of electrical union IBEW Local 48 near the Portland airport.
The organizers, Oregon Tradeswomen's goal was to show young females, in a space safe from mansplaining and lechery, that making a living in the skilled trades is not just possible but desirable.
Women representing the trades came from all over: PGE's linemen, Portland Fire's firefighters, diesel mechanics from TriMet and Cummins. They came to show what they do and to pass on the contrarian message: Don't go to college, learn a skilled trade and live debt-free.
There were stations set up in IBEW Local 48's school to try out soldering and easy woodworking.
Taylor Davis and her friend Kari Robbins, both juniors at Pleasant Hill High School outside of Eugene, were making a planter together from pre-cut pieces of wood. They had to drill holes and screw the wood together at right angles. Mayella Alverado, a salvage specialist at the Rebuilding Center, walked rounded encouraging people, explaining why drilling holes is necessary to prevent the wood cracking. Davis and her friend knocked out the planter in under 10 minutes, effortlessly.
They were just curious to be there. Both, however, have the right stuff to be in construction. Davis is training this summer to aid her application to the U.S. Navy. She wants to be in a special forces unit such as the Navy Seals.
Robbins will go to Lane Community College to get her prerequisites, then go into the electrician's apprenticeship program. Her father owns a residential electrical
company, her mother works for it and her brother is an outside electrician.
"I thought I was going to do construction engineering management, but I don't want to go to school for that," says Robbins. Her goal is to stay in her community.
"We're not even a town," she says. "Pleasant Hill is a town full of hillbillies and rednecks. But it is what it is."
Her Navy Seal friend Davis was more about getting to see the world. She has three siblings, her mom "does not work" and her dad died when she was 10.
"My plan is to do something outside of my family. I have a long line of grandpas in the Navy, that's my inspiration."
What will they do with the planter? "I'll give it to my grandma," said Robbins.
In the next room, girls were learning to solder two pieces of copper pipe together. They clamped the pipe, painted on flux, used a gas torch to melt the solder and threw the hot piece in a bucket of cold water.
McMinnville High School friends Ailie Johnson and Hallie Simmons were proud but not overly impressed with their metalwork. A freshman, Johnson is already in fabrication and woodworking at school. She makes bird houses as gifts. She thought soldering was "pretty cool" and is considering studying construction management at Oregon State University, like her brother.
Simmons helps build houses with Habitat for Humanity and also works on a commercial fishing boat in the summers in Prince William Sound, Alaska. She says the seine boat can hold 40,000 pounds of fish, and she has already done electrical work on it.
"I have time to make a decision," said Simmons. "I like wiring, plumbing and construction a lot. But I know one thing: I want to own a seine fishing boat and use my skills to do electrical work and fix and build things on it."
Eighth grader Hannah Polkinghorn was outside trying out pole climbing with a lineman from Portland General Electric, using tree climbing spurs and a climbing belt. She went up higher than most kids.
"It was pretty fun but I don't know if I want to do it when I grow up," she said. She'd already tried the slippery surfaces obstacle course and done well at that.
Polkinghorn's father is a high school principal and her mom is a school volleyball coach now home with a new baby.
She wasn't especially interested in the trades, but knew it was only because she was young. "I like drawing, so maybe I'll be an architect or a graphic designer.
For a fashion show, tradeswomen modelled their usual work gear and explained why and how they got into their career, what they like about it, and how much they made.
Mary Ann Naylor, communications and marketing director with Oregon Tradeswomen, said "If they don't see women doing jobs they only see men doing, they don't think 'I could be a carpenter, or run that heavy equipment.'"
Kelly Kupcak, the Executive Director of Oregon Tradeswomen, moved here from Cleveland eight months ago, where she worked for a similar organization, Hard Hatted Women. There are nine tradeswomen groups in the country, all formed for the mutual support of women in a man's world.
Kupcak says Schoolgirls Day is about the chance to touch and feel and do things in the skilled trades.
"A lot of time fathers (in the trades) don't want their daughters to go into a really hard industry. We try to flip that and say these are dynamic, exciting, rewarding jobs. And if you can see it you can't be it."
She says the light bulbs go on above the girls' heads, especially when they see professionals talking with such pride.
Outside there was an Oregon Department of Transportation stand where a girl could learn to change or tire or put snow chains on. At another, the laborers union was letting girls use a jackhammer on a block of concrete. Another had them trying to close a fire hydrant — and getting soaked in the process.
Kupcak was the only girl in metal shop in seventh grade, but she ended up getting a degree in social work. Then economic reality hit.
"I became a single parent and needed to make a lot more money and entered the trades. I have compassion for women struggling with economic independence, and I know firsthand the fastest way to get out of poverty is with a good job with good benefits."
As a heavy equipment operator in Cleveland on road crews and drilling rigs, she made more money digging holes in the dirt than with a college degree.
There was sexism.
"On my first job site I worked with 15 guys. They were really mean. The first day, they threw me my keys and pointed at the machine I was supposed to run. No one talked to me and at end of day they asked me in the crudest possible way if I liked girls."
"I said 'I'm somebody's daughter and mother, and you wouldn't want that for your daughter. I'm not going to let you run me off the job because you think I shouldn't be there.'"
Women make up 7 percent of jobs in construction in Portland, which is more than twice the national average.
"The industry has to change to retain talent and can't continue this history of hazing and 'It's a rough and tumble place to be'."
According to the AFL-CIO, "[w]omen make up only 2.6 percent of workers in construction and extraction occupations, and a U.S. Department of Labor study found that 88 percent of them have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work."
She says hazing and harassment can be bad for safety (a sure-fire way to grab the attention of management) by distracting workers. But the occasional horrific incident — like scaffolder Outi Hicks, 32, of Fresno, a union carpenter beaten to death by her coworker in 2017, or the drywall apprentice raped on a job site in Seattle recently — remind her that it's an uphill struggle.
"That moment astonished all of us," she said of Hicks.
Oregon Tradeswomen has become intentional about serving women. For instance, Pathways to Success is a free, eight-week pre-apprenticeship program. It teaches women basic construction skills so they can be a candidate for an entry level job or apprenticeship. They point them to housing and childcare. Women applying for food stamps are told of Pathways, as are women coming out of prison.
Women can cross over from other fields. "A home health care aid is a 97 percent skills match to a firefighter," Kupcak says. "They can lift heavy things. But the biggest thing is be on time and be willing to work hard."
"They teach you how to run a skid steer or a jack hammer. And construction math. But laborers don't need algebra. They need a good attitude, show up on time and work hard."
Moving on up
Tanda Lovenguth, 39, is a journeyman carpenter with Hoffman Structures. She's been working on the Multnomah County Central Courthouse, which is going up near the Hawthorne Bridge, setting up forms for pouring concrete columns and decking. She's motivated to help girls not make the mistakes she did — wasting time and money on inappropriate college courses.
"We just want to talk to these girls that the trades are available to them as a career choice," she said over lunch on the grass.
"I always liked to work outside as a girl but my family pushed me in a more traditional direction."
Lovenguth liked art so she studied Industrial Design at the Art Institute in Seattle, then decided she wanted art to be fun, not her job. So, she tried nursing school.
"I really wasn't cut out to be a nurse. The hardest thing was being emotionally available for all the patients. It's really stressful."
She drifted along for a while. She was living in Bend.
"I was complaining to my boyfriend at the time, I was 26, he was a union carpenter, he said 'You should go down to the union hall and sign up,' and within a week I was swinging a hammer at a job and I just fell in love. I thought , 'Man if I had known about this when I was out of high school, I'd be journeyed out by now.'"
She tells the girls that she's still paying off art and nursing school debts. She makes more than $60,000 a year. In her best year, with a lot of overtime, she made $102,000.
"We get all our medical, vacation time and retirement. And all you have to do is work really hard," she says with a chuckle.
There's job satisfaction, and security. A recession doesn't worry her.
"Last recession I worked right through. The reason we work so hard and keep up on our skills and keep up on the technology, is when there's a recession they're going to keep me. They're not gonna keep the guy who's been lazy and missing a lot of time."
Sexism has not been a problem, bar a couple of instances. "The guys treat me like I'm one of them. The companies have encouraged women to speak out. And men know better."
The work is very physical — constantly moving, bending and lifting. In doing decks she has to move steel embeds around. These are solid plates that sink into the concrete. They are used to support other items, such as windows, which are welded to them. "Some of them weigh 350 pounds, huge steel things. Some are 50 pounds but I've got 200 of them in each pour and I have to move them around by hand. It's like I'm at the gym eight hours a day. I need six hundred grams of protein before lunch. "
The qualities she thinks it takes to succeed in her trade are a willingness to learn, and wanting to be outside moving around, being athletic. You don't need to be a tomboy.
"It's more of an attitude. If you are willing to deal with some discomfort to finish your product, then you'll make it."
Her colleague, Delilah Begay, of The Dalles, is a journeyman laborer also working on the courthouse. Begay says, "Construction gives you a stable life. You can be independent from today, after your turn 18, for life. Because after 25 years you can retire."
Loveguth also tells the girls that job security is thanks to their carpenters union.
"There's a huge political side, it's important for them to stay involved in the union. People fought and worked really hard to get what we have, vacation and eight-hour work days, getting paid a decent wage and health benefits."
And there's a building boom going on, with a shortage of labor to replace retiring Baby Boomers.
"If Hoffman doesn't want to keep me, I can work for someone else, my skills are my skills. I'm a journeyman carpenter, my skills are for sale."
Lovenguth's husband is a freight train engineer for BNSF. They have five kids between them.
"I want them to know this field is available. College is great for some people, but I don't want them to go to college and waste their time and money."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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