Latrice Scroggins, 26, said she has always had jobs — but never a career.
A mother of two, Scroggins, of Middle River, said she got a couple of college credits, “but my heart wasn’t in it.”
Then she found the Sisters in the Brotherhood Pre-Apprenticeship Program: an eight-week training program held at the Mid-Atlantic Carpenters' Training Center in Arbutus to prepare women for apprenticeships in carpentry.
“My stepdad was a carpenter — that was his life, he loved it,” Scroggins said. “So I thought, ‘Why not? I’m looking for something to love.’”
Scroggins is one of five women in the training program whose purpose is to give women a leg up in the male-dominated trade.
The free, all-day intensive classes are run by the local branch of United Brotherhood of Carpenters, a trade union. The current session, which will wrap up at the end of March, is the second of its kind to be held at the Arbutus center.
Susan Schultz, the New Jersey-based head of the Eastern branch of Sisters in the Brotherhood, which supports female members of the union, directs the program.
“For the most part, most women don’t grow up thinking ‘OK, I want to be a carpenter,’” Schultz said. “We’re trying to change that image.”
Lachaye Dudley, 30, said when she told her family and friends about the carpentry program, they were surprised.
“They were like, no! It’s only men in there – is there gonna be other females around you?” Dudley recalled. “I said, ‘I’m coming in with females. We can do the same thing men do.’”
Less than 2 percent of the carpentry union’s members are women, Schultz estimated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 10 percent of employees in the construction industry are women.
Some of that disparity, Schultz said, starts early. Boys often learn from the men in their family about carpentry or associated skills like welding, something Schultz said “doesn’t happen with young girls becoming young women.”
To even the scales, Schultz said, the course in Arbutus trains women in basic carpentry skills: tools, safety regulations, job site culture, and even how to carry heavy materials on a construction site.
Dudley said that in class the women discussed the challenges of entering a job site with mostly men.
“The men, they will look at females like we can’t do as much as them,” Dudley said. “Me, I’m gonna put in good work, make sure I put in the same amount of work as the men.”
Part of the impetus to get women into the field is that carpentry has a lot of benefits as a career, Schultz said.
Carpenters spend their first four years as paid union apprentices, earning a starting salary of at least $16 an hour in the Baltimore area, with benefits —well above the city minimum wage of $9.25. After that, Schultz said, carpentry is often a lifelong career.
“When I go to career fairs, sometimes people call them job fairs, but I don’t like to use that term,” said Tim Miller, director of the three Mid-Atlantic Training centers. “I tell them I’m not offering a job, I’m offering a career.”
Dudley said she and some of the other women plan to work toward careers as pile drivers, driving piling into the earth to set up the foundation for buildings and bridges.
Danielle Evans, 36, wants to be a millwright, working with equipment such as compressors, pumps and turbines, in places including power plants and the aerospace industry.
“We’re dedicated to these women,” Schultz said, adding that the union maintains relationships with trainees after they graduate, offering continued training and support. “We want them to be in here until they retire.”
Ingrid Ross, 52, said that the program’s focus on women appealed to her.
“When it said it’s for women, it really sparked me to join,” she said, “because it’s a male-dominated field.”
Ross, of Upper Marlboro, was formerly a chef, but decided to “reinvent myself into something different.” She said carpentry appealed to her because she enjoys building and fixing things around the house.
For Ross, learning to weld was the biggest challenge. For others, the math test was daunting.
“Math is a very important part of our trade,” said instructor Bob Eaton. “The women come in here and don’t think they can do trigonometry, until they put it to carpenter terms. As an instructor, you can kind of see the light come on.”
Evans said that she was originally anxious about passing the math and mechanics portion of the entrance test required to join the apprenticeship program, but that Eaton’s help got her through it.
“For me, that was everything,” she said.
Dudley said she left her office job as a medical assistant for carpentry because the physical nature of the work “fit my personality.” Strong and athletic, Dudley's nickname among the trainees is “Muscles.”
“I like to say, ‘We don’t work in the office, we build the office,’” Miller said.
Four weeks in, Dudley’s favorite part of the program was welding.
The training center has eight welding booths for trainees to practice arc welding metal plates together.
Translucent curtains surrounded each booth to protect people outside from the UV light of the electric arc, which can burn retinas and cause sunburn.
While welding, the trainees wore leather gloves and protective helmets emblazoned with each of their nicknames; Ross is “Mama Dearest,” Scroggins is “Dance Hall,” and Evans is “Queen Mother."
To train beginning welders, the center also has a $45,000 virtual reality system that simulates the process of welding.
After the program, the women have the opportunity to become certified welders. In one class, instructor Denny Blake showed the women plates the center keeps after certification tests. To become certified, he said, applicants weld together metal plates, and then the tester bends them into a U shape. If the weld is secure, it will hold together, and if not, it will splinter.
“I’m gonna do everything I can to break your weld,” Blake told them. “But if you weld correctly, they’ll bend like butter.”
Dudley compared the finicky, detailed process of welding to cake decorating.
“I had never even heard of welding,” Dudley said, nor had she planned on becoming a carpenter. But now, she said, “I think I’m going to be here a while.”
Schultz compared the eight-week session to a boot camp, saying it is a way for women to learn whether carpentry suits them.
“It’s not for every woman, just like it’s not for every man,” she said. But four weeks in, some of the women at the training session said they had found their calling.
“Growing up, I never knew what I wanted to do,” Scroggins said. “But, I feel like I finally found it.”