Encouraging women to pursue construction as a career they can build on

Rachel Bryan figured she would wear pearls and a dress to an interview after she completed a pre-apprenticeship program for electricians 12 years ago.

"Wrong answer," she said her trainers told her. "You want to dress like you're going to work."

It was one of the best pieces of advice she said she ever got.

While an feminine get-up would have been appropriate if she were interviewing for an office job, baggy jeans and boots were a better fit as Bryan pursued a career as an electrician.

Now a journey-level electrician and an international representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bryan was one of six women who shared their stories of working in trades during a Saturday panel discussion about job opportunities for African-American women in construction.

The event, "From Girls in the Hood to Women in Construction," was hosted by the Baltimore Black Worker Center at the Fells Point office of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. The talk highlighted the experiences of women of mixed ages and races working in fields ranging from carpentry to ironwork.

Some, such as plumber and steamfitter Raven Retz, were first-year apprentices. Others, like 34-year veteran carpenter Cynthia Mills, had been in the business for years.

The women encouraged about 50 attendees — from young students to adults — to consider careers fields not traditionally thought of by or for women. They touted the benefits: job stability, good pay and low barriers to entry for those with criminal records.

And all of them said their local union chapters were hiring.

It was the first event the recently founded Baltimore Black Worker Center had partnered with unions to host. The group is part of a national organization aiming to address high unemployment rates and low-paying jobs in the black community.

The national unemployment rate for African-American women was 7.1 percent in February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's compared to a national unemployment rate of 4.1 percent.

Dorcas Gilmore, who sits on the Baltimore Black Worker Center's coordinating committee, said the organization chose to hold the event during March — Women's History Month — to raise awareness of and increase access to jobs that are available to women but often overlooked.

"When we think of jobs that are traditionally male jobs, they're higher-paying jobs with the same level of education," Gilmore said.

Panelists agreed that working in construction can be tough for women because they are often seen as too weak to do work that can be physically demanding.

"The culture is very male-dominant," Bryan said. "The motto is typically 'If you can't cut it, you cannot stay.'"

Ironworker Tashika Woods recalled a time early in her career when a co-worker asked her to carry an oxygen tank. She couldn't lift it.

"They try to make you fail," she said. "You have to suck that up."

Raquel Johnson grew up working with her father, a mason, but for a long time she felt as if she was the only woman in construction. Women have more to prove than men entering the field, she said.

"You have to stand your ground," she said. "As long as you can do the work, they don't care who you are, what color you are."

Despite the barriers, they said the work is worth it.

Elizabeth Stevens, a teacher who attended the event, said she wanted to see more girls introduced to careers in trades early in school.

"What can we do to get our girls to break down the barrier and see it as another option?" she asked the panel.

Yaribett Lashley, a 17-year-old student at Aberdeen High School, was among the younger attendees. The junior is part of her school's "Project Lead the Way" program, which focuses on engineering and electronics.

After speaking with some of the recruiters about opportunities to work with computers in carpentry, Lashley said she could see programming those computers as a possible career path.

"This is something I could put to use, I'm sure, and know that I could come out good," she said. "That's something that I enjoy."

Baltimore City Councilwomen Mary Pat Clarke and Shannon Sneed also attended the event.

Clarke said she sees union jobs as good opportunities for fair pay and benefits — in particular, she said, in light of Mayor Catherine Pugh's recent veto of a bill to raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 per hour.

"These women give us hope that there's opportunities for everyone in these unions," she said.

Bryan said now is a good time for women who are thinking about going into trades.

"I like to say, why not get paid like a man to look like a woman?" she said.

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

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