Bricks, paint, wrenches, wires, sirens, hammers and torches: these are still the everyday materials in the trades. Business may have gone digital, but some tasks still require the human touch.
Last Friday was School Girls' Day at the Oregon Tradeswomen's 2019 Career Fair at the home of electrical union IBEW Local 48 near the Portland airport. The fair, which continued Saturday for the general public, is in its 27th year. On Friday, a school day, 1,700 girls came from around the state to meet women representing the trades, including iron workers, cement masons, bricklayers, electricians, line workers, stagehands, carpenters, laborers, utility workers, plumbers, firefighters and diesel mechanics. The girls moved around activity stations, including making a bird house, ascending a fire ladder, walking in a harness on a slippery floor, shutting off a gushing water main, and tinkering with a diesel engine. In most cases, without a male relative to show them they might never do these things, and the trades would be missing a pipeline to valuable labor. Oregon Tradeswomen's goal was to show young females that a living in the skilled trades is not just possible but desirable.
Rachel Hunter, the development associate for Oregon Tradeswomen, was wrangling teens and on and off yellow busses. As the fair's project manager, she sees kids having fun.
"Oh, my gosh, you hear a lot, but the comment you hear over and over is, 'That was so cool!'"
It's about experimenting.
"Young women don't know that the trades are an option for them so we reserve this whole day just for them to come out and get their hands dirty trying different trades," said Hunter. "And also meet women in those trades and see a role model, actually get a chance to speak to a woman who is doing that job."
Seeing that tradeswomen are often "small-statured" combats the myth that a woman has to be a tomboy to fit in.
"And they can see, 'Oh, she's not much taller than me and she's lifting this concrete block right now. I could do that.'"
Hunter said the girls were a mixture of students from career and technical education programs, alternative high schools, and some just there with their guidance counselor.
What makes the biggest impression on them?
"It's the hands-on part of it, the fact that like, they get to climb up an iron beam with the iron workers, and that they get to put on the gear of a roofer or a welder and actually hold a torch in their hand, and solder, and actually do the work that they would be doing."
These girls could be earning at 18 years of age.
"The free education may last anywhere from two-to-five years, depending on the trade. And you're getting pay increases that whole time. And then once you journey out, you're getting your full wage. And so, you don't have any debt, because you haven't paid."
Each one teach one
Mary Ann Naylor, communications and marketing director at Oregon Tradeswomen, says one school in Southern Oregon fundraises all year to be able to come and stay in a hotel. Another in Roseburg comes and volunteers on the Thursday and spends Friday and Saturday at the fair. Many teachers keep it on their radar and consider it their most valuable field trip.
There were a lot of classes from outside of Portland. Mrs. Miller, a teacher from the Umatilla School District, looked on with pride as her students wrestled with a water main and were soaked in the process.
"A lot of them didn't even know terminology like what a warehouse was or a pallet. So, it's pretty exciting."
And where might a girl from Umatilla look for a job? "We have the prison, we have the distribution center for Walmart, and then lots of forestry and other agriculture," said Miller.
Another teacher coming for the third year straight was Alan Cunningham, the career technical teacher at Arlington High School (home of the Honkers). It is 140 miles east of Portland and has just 40 students. They came a day early to volunteer, the first to arrive and the last to leave each day.
Cunningham teaches all the manufacturing classes in the school district. "The most influential element of the day is just the exposure, talking to people," he said. "You show up and everybody here wants to talk to them. I warned them ahead of time, when you walk up to a booth, there's going to be someone there that loves what they do, and they're going to want to talk to you. It's so awesome. They're having such a great time."
Government workers were present at the fair, including road stripers: the people who drive the truck that paints traffic stripes on the road. Kellie Dimmitt is a striper for Washington County. When it's dry she either driver the striper truck or sits in a glass cab at the back, operating the paint guns and checking the work as it rolls away behind them. He friend Summer Pointer arrived in a water truck but usually she paints for Clackamas County. She showed off buckets of the glass beads, like fine white sand, which are scattered on the paint and sit in it and make it reflective.
Even cowgirls get the blues
Christina van der Kamp is school-to-careers coordinator for the Pendleton School District. "This is an opportunity that we don't have in Eastern Oregon over in Pendleton. It came across my radar about two years ago, and we signed up last year and came and had a wonderful time and brought another 40 girls this year."
Van der Kamp believes what captures their imagination is simple: "I think anything that has a hands-on and a team aspect to it. The girls had to seal up the pipe, and we just finished building a (modular) tiny home inside as a team."
Seeing women helps.
"I think representation is everything. Just looking around the parking lot, and all the amazing women that are walking around in their uniforms and wearing their gear, and basically just doing their jobs is huge. It's absolutely huge."
The money also helps.
"The (other) woman bricklayer was like 'You start at $20 an hour, I'm now making $40, the top is $60.' And their jaws drop. Because those dollar amounts I don't think they see very often in the opportunities listed."
Van der Kamp won a $1,500 grant to fund the trip. "We left at 6 a.m. this morning and got here at 10 to check in and we're leaving at three. Some of the girls had never been outside of Pendleton."
When she left a no-good husband, taking their three kids (including a four-month-old) and moved in her with her mother, Kristie Reeves didn't know what to do next. A family friend, an electrician, brought her (and the kids) to the Tradeswomen's fair four years ago and she picked up a flyer listing all union trade rates of pay. One day she just decided to head down to the union hall to sign on as an apprentice bricklayer. Weighing 230 pounds she felt unconfident, and even after several months of basic laboring, she surprised a colleague by not knowing what a trowel was.
Now she throws up brickwork with ease, currently working on the Modera apartment building at Northwest 10th and Davis in the Pearl. Reeves loves the work and says the union, and her colleagues, who are mostly male, have her back.
"I don't like the gym but this is like getting paid to work out every day," says the 30-year-old. She proudly dropped down to 150 pounds and took up rock climbing. "It was a drastic weight loss. But it was also drastic muscle gain. Of course I was sore. And I took cold showers to help ease the pain."
Now 90% of the way through her apprenticeship with the Bricklayers and Workers Local 1, she likes the financial stability — especially since she gets no child support payments. Her union dues are about $25 a month plus a "check off" as an apprentice of $1.79 per hour.
"I really owe this career fair because I would have never found my trade without it. I knew nothing about construction."
On job sites, Reeves did mostly hod carrying and prep work for the first 2,000 hours before being allowed to lay bricks full time or get "wall time."
Cinder blocks are for structural work. The smaller bricks are decorative rather than structural, sitting on iron ledgers on a steel frame building.
She's worked on schools, apartments, even the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.
"As far as the brick and block, we only have one journeymen female in our local Oregon." She doesn't get any sexism that she can't defend herself against.
"My company is really, really awesome. As long as you're a hard worker, as long as you do what you're told, and you're not argumentative, and you're striving to do your job better and better every day. There are companies out there where gender is an obstacle, but the company we're working for, you just give it your all, and they respect that."
At a former company she was told to "not pick up as much stuff or was just put on the light duty because I was the girl, and I really had to work harder to prove that I could do it. So I just I worked harder than the person next to me to show like, Hey, I'm actually here to do my job. And I got noticed. The problem comes when you try to play the girl part and you're like 'Oh, I can't do this because I'm a girl.' That's when the problems are."
She has used people's doubt to fuel her ambition about to journey out.
In school, she wanted to be a school counselor, considered becoming a cop, but now has found her niche. She currently makes $34.20 an hour. Journeymen bricklayers are making $38 with a couple of dollars raise coming soon.
There's less math involved with being a bricklayer than an electrician. "As a person who's laying the proof on the wall, if you can read a tape measure and do some basic geometry or algebra, it's really quite simple. It's just a really physical job. it's kind of like its own version of CrossFit.''
Her son is eight and her daughters are six and four. "They know what I do. I bring them here every year. And sometimes my dad will take them to my job sites and show them what mom's working on. My dad's really awesome."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.