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Philly construction trades are looking to recruit more women, starting with pre-apprentices

“While these jobs might not be for every girl, it can be for any girl, and we want them to know that.”

Women In Nontraditional Careers Trades Readiness pre-apprentices with their new tool bags: (from left) Christina McNeill, instructor Erin O'Brien-Hofmann, Michelle Burgos and Dalila Lahlou. It's the first all women's pre-apprenticeship program in Philadelphia since the 1980s.
Women In Nontraditional Careers Trades Readiness pre-apprentices with their new tool bags: (from left) Christina McNeill, instructor Erin O'Brien-Hofmann, Michelle Burgos and Dalila Lahlou. It's the first all women's pre-apprenticeship program in Philadelphia since the 1980s.Read moreJane Von Bergen

Lisa Ashton Mattioli has a tough job. As diversity and community manager for Intech Construction in Philadelphia, she is responsible for making sure the construction crews on Intech’s projects employ women, as well as other underrepresented groups of workers.

It’s a must. Clients — the universities, hospitals, and corporations, adding dormitories, research wings and office buildings — want their contractors to employ a diverse workforce. Many also have agreed to equity goals as part of their building projects.

The problem is, there aren’t enough diverse workers to meet the demand, and there are very few in the apprentice pipeline. Nationally, only 3.4% of construction trade workers are female, as of 2018, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

But a new program — the first in Philadelphia since the 1980s — is aiming to make a difference, particularly for women. On July 13, eight women began the WINC Tradeswomen Readiness Program, a six-week pre-apprentice class.

“Most of us females in the trades have a road to get here and often that road involves a little pain,” said Erin O’Brien-Hofmann, a union painter and the lead instructor for the WINC (Women in Nontraditional Careers) course.

“Most women in the trades are sort of like cheerleaders” for other women, she said. “While these jobs might not be for every girl, it can be for any girl, and we want them to know that.”

Increasing the number of diverse workers can’t happen quickly enough for Mattioli.

“The union is pretty good with sending us them when they have it,” said Mattioli, whose company employs union carpenters. “But there are a lot of projects going on in the city, and all are asking for women, minorities, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. Eventually, the union runs out of those, and it doesn’t take that long.”

“If I call the hall and ask for four carpenters, and ‘please send me one woman,’ they’ll say, ‘We don’t have any on the bench,’” she said.

At the same time, Mattioli’s company is competing for workers with subcontractors, who are also looking for women and people of color, perhaps to work on the same job site.

In response to demand and labor shortages, almost every building trade union wants to diversify the group of apprentices. But the building trade unions are still learning how to reach people who may not have had an uncle, brother or father in unions, which have been predominantly white and male. For women, the added complication is that many haven’t seen construction jobs as an option.

Girls hear “be a teacher or be a nurse,” said Kelly Ireland, a union plumber.

The solution seems simple: Just bring more women into the unions. But it’s not easy.

Unions are not employers; they supply labor to employers. Nor are the building trades one solid entity with one recruitment office. Elevator builders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, painters, and glaziers — each union has its own specialty, its own records, and its own admission process.

Their apprentice programs, however, are roughly similar. Every apprentice gets paid throughout three to four years of classroom work and mentored on-the-job training. To keep the apprentices employed and to make sure there’s a safe ratio of skilled journeymen to apprentices on job sites, unions and contractors have committees that forecast labor demand four years out.

What’s clear now is a demand for women, and awareness is growing of what it takes to recruit them. In addition to assisting with the pre-apprentice program, the city’s building trades are hosting high school and middle school girls at their facilities, part of this summer’s MyWIC camp — Mentoring Young Women in Construction.

“There is broad interest by the trades in learning how to do better in attracting women,” said Sue Hoffman, senior associate of innovation at Philadelphia Works, which is coordinating the pre-apprentice program with the U.S. Department of Labor through a grant to Chicago Women in Trades.

“Representation is important,” she said, noting that recruiting materials need to include pictures of women.

“One of the ‘ah-ha’ moments was not to focus on high school seniors and young women,” Hoffman said. “Across the country, we’ve learned that many women make the choice to enter the trades in their mid-20s to mid-30s.”

“They’ve been in the labor market. ... They may have been in low-wage service jobs,” she said. “They are ready to look for something new, something that is high-paying because they may be needing to support children, and they are looking for the future.”

That’s the case with painter Roneesha Williams, 34, of West Philadelphia, who was earning $14 an hour doing housekeeping at the Convention Center. “I thought, `Let me just try it,’” she said. “I didn’t want to do housekeeping forever, either.”

Williams met a female union plumber who was working at the Philadelphia Housing Authority site where she lived. The plumber encouraged her to join PHA’s pre-apprenticeship program. Now Williams earns more than $40 an hour, plus benefits.

Instructor O’Brien-Hofmann, who also helps recruit apprentices for her union, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 21, said she prefers pre-apprentice program graduates. Philadelphia’s building trades, in general, give graduates of pre-apprentice programs a boost toward admission.

In the WINC program, pre-apprentices earn certificates in first aid, CPR and OSHA 10, which is a basic construction safety program. They learn construction awareness and construction math, with calisthenics to build strength. They’ll be introduced to female mentors in each building trade, along with representatives from SEPTA and from manufacturers who also are seeking tradeswomen.

Among the mentors are Ireland, the union plumber, and Ashley “Ash” Fritzsche, 31, an apprentice with IBEW Local 98, the electricians’ union.

“I really care about women succeeding in the trades, and I think that any extra support is super helpful,” said Fritzsche, a former bar server who was encouraged to go into the trades by two of her regular customers, both union steamfitters. “I had been working in the food industry, and there really isn’t anywhere to go.”

She said she finds working as an electrician creative and challenging.

Ireland said she sometimes felt lonely as the only woman on job sites and is glad to be connected to several groups of tradeswomen. “I had wonderful mentors,” she said, “but I could have used a safe ear.”

On July 13, the first day of WINC class, the pre-apprentices received an iPad for their course work and a tool bag equipped with a screwdriver, pliers, and a tape measure. Their boots were coming the next day. They took turns talking about why they enrolled. One had been in administrative jobs, another wanted to start her own construction business, another likes working with her hands.

Michelle Burgos, 35, of West Kensington, thought she wanted to be a teacher, but working as a teaching assistant changed her mind. She was a bartender and medical coder before finally beginning a small painting business, where she struggled to find workers. “I just want to be responsible for myself.”

Dalila Lahlou, 40, was a civil engineer in Algeria, an expert who inspected masonry. But her degree wasn’t accepted here, so she wound up working in a Dunkin’, where she was robbed at gunpoint — twice. “I am trying to change my life.”

The pre-apprenticeship course includes frank talk about sexual harassment and other challenges faced by being the only woman or person of color on a job site.

“At first they look at you because you’re a woman,” said Williams, who is Black. But hard work and skill earn respect, she said. When she carried 50 pounds of paint up 16 flights, no one could argue that she was getting a break. “When they see you hustle just as hard as they do, they begin to request you.”

Restrooms pose a challenge. Many job sites have women-only porta potties, but the only one might be 26 stories down. The other choice is to use the men’s restroom.

Ireland, the union plumber, has encountered men’s rooms filled with vulgar graffiti.

“My first job, it was a `Who had the best ... contest?’ with them all voting on which woman on the job had the best butt. What do you do? You don’t do anything. You can tell someone that they are writing about you on the porta potty, but then you can become the one who tells on people.”

In class, O’Brien-Hofmann is blunt about dating on the job: Don’t do it. It’s easy to be flattered by attention from male colleagues, she said, but it’s also easy to get a reputation.

Not a problem, said Christina “Tina” McNeill, 33, of Northeast Philadelphia, who signed up for the program because she was burned out in her job in a drug-treatment center. As a lesbian, she said, “I know the guys won’t be interested in me, and I’m not interested in them.”

O’Brien-Hofmann, a mother of four boys who is married to a bricklayer, described her philosophy to the class: “I love him, and I want to be with him, but I don’t need him” to support the family. With a job paying $42 an hour — equal to the men — she said: “Nothing was going to get between me and my paycheck.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.