Construction is a booming industry. But when’s the last time you saw a female construction worker? A female plumber? Turns out, there aren’t very many. Women make up only 2.6 percent of the field. The Women Can Build Career Fair in Hayward, California is trying to address this gender imbalance. While I was covering the event, as a young female reporter, people were trying to recruit me. And I did get my hands dirty with Venetian plaster.
“Am I doing this right?” I asked Bob Noto, who was at the fair recruiting plaster apprentices.
“Yeah. Maybe put a little more pressure,” he told me.
“This is like painting. I’ve never done this before,” I said.
Standing there with a trowel in my hand, I have to admit I had fun. So did Jocelyn Cruz, a 17-year-old who attended the fair with her classmates from Mount Diablo High School.
“I just cut a piece of steel with fire and oxygen,” Cruz said.
Teenage girls from Mount Diablo High School listen to a recruiter describe job opportunities in the construction industry. (Teresa Chin/Youth Radio)
“My dad does plumbing. He’s always telling me about his job,” said Savannah Ysassi, one of Cruz’s classmates.
If she gets into the trade, she knows what to expect. I asked her what she thinks her biggest challenge might be, based on what she hears from her dad.
“Probably men would be the biggest obstacle,” said Ysassi. “Because they’re stronger. They get more opportunities in these types of jobs than women do.”
Another issue is sexual harassment—something the Department of Labor says 88 percent of women in the field experience. Angela Molina, who I found at the sheet metal booth, can testify to this. Molina has been a sheet metal worker for 30 years, and something of a pioneer in the field.
“I had to endure a lot. Back then women weren’t typically seen on a work site. So it’s like, what do I do about this? I had no one to talk to. I really didn’t have any example to follow. So I just kept it in,” she said.
Angela Molina talks to Youth Radio reporter Kasey Saeturn about her 30-year career as a sheet metal worker. (Teresa Chin/Youth Radio)
Molina said the field is better than it used to be, but it’s still not great. That didn’t stop Natasha Pineda from diving in. She went from a job in retail to working in building maintenance, where she found herself making way more money.
“I was making over $80 grand a year. And you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m not even finished with my apprenticeship yet.’ It’s definitely a lucrative field,” said Pineda, a 32-year-old stationary engineering apprentice.
She will “graduate” from her apprenticeship next year and be fully certified. So she’s making 80 grand while she’s still taking classes, and she will finish her apprenticeship with no debt. Her immediate prospects are significantly different from those of most college graduates.
To 16-year-old Savannah Ysassi, that’s one reason to consider going into construction, despite the obvious challenges. “There’s not really a lot of opportunities for women to be able to do these types of jobs that are really great for our community,” she said.
So after a few hours testing out different construction tools, Ysassi and the other teen girls left the fair with one more job possibility in mind.
That story was produced by Youth Radio.