Photo by Stephan Dupont
Photo by Stephan Dupont
reported by Erica Rivera

Amanda Gardas searched for years for the right career. In high school, a counselor pushed her towards Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC), but Gardas enlisted in the Army instead, where she received training as a cook. After three years of service, she came home to Minnesota and worked chef jobs. She scraped by financially, but relied on Medical Assistance for her children’s healthcare and had no money saved.

One of her friends, a woman who worked across the street at a dry cleaner, mentioned that she was considering a return to the local union as a pipefitter. A lightbulb went off. “I was just floored to know somebody who did this work, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Gardas says.

Gardas was accepted into the Steamfitters Pipeline Local 455 union. She completed a year in the St. Paul College pipefitting degree program. “It’s kind of a commitment, especially as a pre-established adult, to go back to school,” she says. “I just did it. If I thought too much about it, I don’t think I would have done it.”

As a first-year apprentice, her starting wage was $18 an hour, more than she’d ever made at any job. Through the union, she received health and dental insurance, a pension, an annuity, and a vacation fund.

Now in her fourth year of a five- year apprenticeship, she’ll soon take her code and licensure tests, graduate, and become a Journeywoman. “I’m so grateful that I found the opportunity,” she says.

If Gardas had known about construction industry opportunities when she was younger, she would have pursued them. But the construction industry wasn’t represented at her high school’s college or career fairs.

Now, through the union, she does outreach in schools and at events so that young people know about options in the construction industry. “If somebody would have told me, or shown me, what a difference it would have made for me,” she says.

Information is Power

Women make up only six percent of participants in U.S. construction apprenticeship programs.

“Being unaware of the opportunity is the biggest and most prevalent challenge,” says Jenny Winkelaar, director of marketing and public relations for Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council.

The building trades, affiliates, and local unions are trying to increase the visibility of construction industry jobs through training site tours, mentorship, scholarships, and volunteer projects that pair experienced tradeswomen with women interested in the field.

The seasonal component of the trades, such as common winter layoffs, aren’t considered a drawback among some millennials. Winkelaar says they gladly use that time to travel.

Of course, construction industry work has challenges. “It’s easy to hear the wage rates in the construction industry and say, ‘That sounds great!’ But you also need to be comfortable in the heat, in the cold, in confined spaces, in the dirt, in the dust, with heights,” Winkelaar says. “You do need to be comfortable being one woman among 100 men.”

Sisters in Solidarity

Jennifer Gaspersich, an electrician for 21 years, worked for almost a decade as the sole woman. She chaired Sisters in Solidarity, a women’s group in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 292. Early on, when invitations went out for a gathering, 30 women from her union showed up. “I was like, ‘Who are these women and where have they been?’” she recalls.

Terri Stave, an elevator constructor for 32 years, and business representative for Elevator Constructors Local 9, had a similar experience at the beginning of her career. “You didn’t really know that women existed much. If you did, you worked one place and they worked another,” she says.

Social media has been a game-changer, Stave says, allowing women in the trades to ask questions of and support each another. “It’s helped some of the women tremendously.”

Tradeswomen can also connect at the annual Women Build Nations conference, which will be held in Minneapolis in October. Last year’s event drew 2,300 attendees from around the U.S. and Canada.

Building a Bridge Between Generations

Catherine Ludowese, a Career and Technical Education teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, is doing her part to usher in the next generation of tradeswomen. This past fall, she began teaching a construction course. “A lot of my kids had never seen a saw before; they’d never held a hammer,” she says.

Ludowese’s curriculum includes shop safety, measurement, concrete work, and an electrical unit. Students have constructed a giant Jenga game, learned how to use a panel saw, and wired outlets and lights. She invites guest speakers, like licensed electricians or carpenters, to tell the students about career prospects.

“When I talk to my female students, a lot of them look around and say, ‘It’s a scary class.’ It’s that stipulation: ‘This is a man’s world,’” Ludowese says. And yet, “all of the women in my classes have done very well.”

For Gardas, the perks of pipefitting outweigh the challenges. She feels welcome in the field. Team members appreciate her unique traits, including her small size, which allows her to work in tight spaces.

“Most people want you to do good. They want you to succeed,” she says. “If you do your part – show up and act right and be polite and respectful and work hard – you’re on their team.”