Girls participating in a WiCC-sponsored
Summer Youth project making picnic tablesPhoto courtesy of WTHC
Women in Construction at first attracted older women but soon the project drew interest from younger women fresh out of high school, too. Michelle LeBeau admits to skepticism at first. “We were prepared for women in their late 20s to 40s, but all of a sudden the 16 to 21-year-old women were calling us wanting to join,” she says. “I worried about whether they would be committed to a long-term career. Some of the women had never held down jobs, some had dropped out of high school and some were in crisis situations. I wondered if they would be stable and show up to work every day.”
As it turned out, she was happy to be proven wrong. Once the young women rolled up their sleeves, they discovered that the experience provided them with a supportive community of women and a boost in self-confidence, too. “They love the reaction they get when people find out they’re construction workers, and they love to be part of a company that challenges society’s messages about who girls and women should be and what they can and can’t do,” says LeBeau. “These young women have taken on a strong leadership role in the company and in promoting construction as a viable career choice for other women.”
The young women were so inspired that they developed an outreach program called Home Girls. The project was first funded through a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the W. Glen Boyd Foundation. Home Girls makes presentations at high schools, community youth programs and youth detention centers to interest teenage girls in construction careers. Over 50 young women have responded to their outreach efforts. In the summer, a youth project brought in 16- and 17-year-old girls for eight weeks to do painting and carpentry. “It was a skill-building and mentoring opportunity,” says LeBeau.
For two of the Home Girls, the experience has changed not only the way they see themselves but also how they envision the future. Kara Schneider was working in childcare at WTHC when she heard about the Women in Construction initiative. “I actually dropped out of high school,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” When Michelle asked her if she wanted to learn cabinetry and make furniture, Schneider jumped at the chance. Her father is a carpenter, plus she is good at math. “I was able to use my math skills,” she says. And she learned how houses are built, what’s between the walls. Now 20, she’s a cabinetmaker in training. “In five years I hope to be running the cabinetry shop…, and training other women,” Schneider says.
Her experience was so positive that she became one of the founders of Home Girls. “Home Girls started because we thought, ‘We should hook them young!’” she laughs. The reaction Schneider and the other Home Girls get from guys is first one of disbelief (“You actually do this?”). “It’s kind of a shock to the girls,” Schneider says. “But a large portion of them had thought about it, but hadn’t thought it was possible. We hear a few chuckles, but after they see pictures, it gets quiet.”
Schneider lives with two roommates and is making “a very good wage now, for sure – $12 an hour, including health benefits.” Her only problem is “having to explain to people who don’t believe me or take me seriously.” “It really wears on me, you know. It’s real hard to deal with,” she says. Classes in anti-racism (her mother is a trainer), sexism and homophobia have helped her make sense of why people are incredulous about women in construction, and they have helped her handle problems effectively when she encounters them on a job site. “It was really mind-blowing, I was really shocked at how things really worked,” she says. Women are encouraged to address problems immediately, and get a superior to help, if necessary. “One of the biggest things is not joking about it, not making casual remarks,” Schneider says. “Just because we’re not offended doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt someone else.”
Katie Piasecki is only 21 but she has worked since she was 16, mostly low-paying part-time jobs in food service and cleaning. She was supporting herself and going to college full-time, but she hadn’t chosen a major. Then a friend told her about the Women in Construction program.
“I was interested in carpentry,” says Piasecki, whose father, like Schneider’s, was a carpenter. She admits that at first she thought the program was a summer job. But she discovered that it was something much more. “I discovered it was such a nurturing environment. It was open and empowering,” she says. “They wanted you to succeed and learn as much as you could. That had a large impact on me. It was an epiphany for me.”
Piasecki, whose specialty is carpentry and sheetrock, has done everything from the rough framing of a house to interior moldings, painting and installation of ceramic tile. She is now a crew leader, which means she has enough experience and skills to work on her own as well as teach others. Financially, it means that she and her husband can not only afford to buy little luxuries like “good, whole bean coffee,” but they are on their way to buying their own home as well. “I never thought I’d be as progressed financially as I am,” she says.
That success has helped her mother accept her daughter’s choice of career. “My mom always wanted me to go to college,” Piasecki says. “She’s proud, she always had big ideas for me. Now she sees I’m happy and that I’m successful. My husband has always been very proud of me. He loves to brag.”
Piasecki is in the process of getting her contractor’s license and was recently given a slot as an “apprentice” construction manager. “I’ll schedule the whole work site, order materials and decide who I need to work with me,” she explains.
There are other aspects of being a construction manager that she knows will be challenging. “You need to work well with others and have leadership skills,” she said. “It can be hard because you’re working with a small crew and you tend to be friends.” In addition to keeping everything organized on the work site, she also has to deal with subcontractors. “Being young and female is two strikes against you,” Piasecki says. “The challenge was whether I would be respected.” Luckily, she has established relationships with most of the subcontractors from previous jobs with Women in Construction.
When Piasecki speaks to high school students, she urges them to consider not just construction careers but other nontraditional careers as well. “They usually pay better,” she says. “And there are other women in these nontraditional roles.”