Women on the Rise
Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a Portland-based nonprofit that helps women enter careers in construction and manufacturing, started the Women on the Rise! Awards program two years ago to shine a light on outstanding women working in the construction trades.
In the program's first year, Oregon Tradeswomen selected four winners with help from four of its union apprenticeship partners.
For this year's awards, the organization expanded the call for nominations. Out of 20 nominees, four winners were selected: Jinnie Freeman, an apprentice with the Sheet Metal Workers Local 16; Ann Lawson, estimator and administrative director at Lovett Deconstruction; Saylor Neher, a powerline clearance tree trimmer apprentice with Local 125; and Melinda Wilson, a journey-level operating engineer with IUOE 701.
Before picking up their awards, the four women talked with the Business Tribune about why the construction trades have turned out to be their perfect career choices.
Saylor Neher: Life on a limb
For Saylor Neher, finding the perfect career started with first knowing the path she didn't want to follow.
Everyone else in her family has attended college, from her parents to her siblings. But Neher knew while she was still in high school that a four-year degree wasn't the right choice for her.
Her parents just wanted her to find a career that would make her happy. So, when she expressed an interest in welding, her father took her to a Women in Trades Career Fair. The fair, organized annually by Oregon Tradeswomen, offers women and high school students an opportunity to learn about alternative careers, from firefighting to carpentry.
At the fair, Neher found herself talking with a woman representing the powerline clearance tree trimming trade.
"She was asking me questions. Did I like being outside? Did I like Crossfit? I kept saying, 'Yes. Yes.'"
By the time the conversation and the fair were over, Neher had pretty much made up her mind about her next steps. While many women choose to enroll in a pre-apprenticeship program, which gives them a chance to gain hands-on experience with tools while also learning about different career paths in the construction trades, Neher decided to move straight into a 4,000-hour apprenticeship program to become a powerline clearance tree trimmer.
"I just kind of knew what I wanted to do," she said.
A little more than two years later, Neher now works for Asplundh and has approximately 40 hours to go before she journeys out, the industry term for finishing an apprenticeship program.
While there are a handful of journey-level women and three or four women apprentices she's met in her chosen trade, she's never had another woman on her crew. She'd like to see that change, so she's become involved in the event that helped her find her career path. The year after her first visit to the Women in Trades fair, she returned as an apprentice and worked at the powerline clearance tree trimmer booth. This past May, she ran the booth.
She's also given her father a chance to see her at work.
"I did trim a tree for him in his backyard," she said. "He doesn't tell me himself, but I hear from other people how proud he is of me."
Melinda Wilson: Digging in
Melinda Wilson deals in dirt — digging it up, moving it around and leveling it off. And while she admits a preference for really big equipment, she says she's happy on any type of dirt-moving machine, from excavators to 'dozers.
For the past several years, Wilson has turned that passion into a career as a heavy equipment operating engineer. She most recently finished up a job working on a new high school in Sherwood.
Wilson traces her fascination with heavy equipment back to her childhood. Her father worked for a paving company and would bring home the tools of his trade — whatever equipment he happened to be working on.
"He'd bring the equipment home and we'd get to ride on it and run it," Wilson said.
Her uncle, who works for Clackamas County, got Wilson her first road-maintenance job on a county paving crew. While all of the tasks handed to her weren't her dream duties — she was sometimes required to pick up dead deer and other roadkill — she knew she'd found her calling.
Her path to her current role wasn't perfectly smooth. In the mid-2000s, she went through the process and basic training to become a heavy equipment operating engineer with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 701 before reality stopped her progress.
"The economy tanked, so I never got my official dispatch," Wilson said.
She spent some time working as a subcontractor for Comcast, but when she saw an ad for Oregon Tradeswomen she decided to go through the organization's pre-apprenticeship program. She was working for Portland General Electric after finishing the program when she heard Local 701 was opening up again for the first time since the recession.
The local still had Wilson's information on hand, which allowed her to be fast-tracked. She finished her apprenticeship and received her journey-level status earlier this year.
Moving dirt is seasonal work, so with winter approaching, Wilson is headed for some down time. She plans on getting some additional heavy equipment training under her belt. She's also looking forward to heading to Seattle soon for the Women Build Nations Conference, which will give her a rare opportunity to connect with other tradeswomen from around the world, including women operating engineers.
"You get to see all of the women in your field. Between us, we shoot ideas around about increasing the number of women (in the industry)."
Ann Lawson: The office lady
It took Ann Lawson awhile to admit that the perfect job for her in the world of construction wasn't out in the field
She started in the industry handling administrative tasks for a general contractor. When a co-worker went on vacation, her boss asked her if she'd like to fill in as a project manager.
She found she liked being out in the field, in part because it broke with the tradition that most women working in construction tended to be involved in the administrative side — the office ladies. But she questioned whether a project manager position was the right fit for her.
"Sometimes nobody on the project was female, not the clients, not the subcontractors. It can be a lonely place … Being the only woman on the job site and being in a management position, it can be difficult to get your voice heard."
She was thinking about an industry switch when a friend told her how the pre-apprenticeship program at Oregon Tradeswomen had helped her find the right trade fit in construction. Lawson enrolled in the program and then set about trying different trades. She eventually connected with Der Lovett, the owner of Lovett Deconstruction.
"He said (building deconstruction is) really hard work; it's not glamorous," Lawson said. "That's 100 percent true. It's physically demanding and really dirty."
But working in the field learning the finer points of deconstruction gave Lawson a new perspective. One year after joining the company, she moved back into an office environment, using her field knowledge to become an estimator as well as administrative director.
"If I could go back and talk to my 25-year-old self, I would say... you don't have to know everything. You don't have to have it all figured out. I think that's where I was falling short, I thought I had to know everything and I wasn't giving myself the space to learn."
One of the biggest lessons she's learned is that's okay to embrace the right job when it comes along, even if it isn't the role you originally imagined for yourself.
"I am the office lady. What can I say? I love a good spreadsheet."
Jinnie Freeman: Finding a spark
Jinnie Freeman was in junior college in California when she took a welding class and felt a spark. But it wasn't until several years later that the initial interest turned into the fire that's fueling her current journey as a sheet metal apprentice. Freeman originally planned to become an art teacher. Instead, she found her way into a job as an interpreter, and worked for a couple of years as a teacher's aide interpreting for students and other children with special needs. She enjoyed the position, but a move to a new town made it too difficult to continue in that line of work.
Not willing to give up on finding the right career, Freeman was considering returning to school and getting back into welding when she came across a job ad. A Pennsylvania-based company was looking for people in California to weld hand rails for projects. Freeman worked for the company for six years.
A move to Oregon meant she had to give up the job with the Pennsylvania company, but she didn't want to give up a career that included welding. She took some temp jobs, but found herself bouncing around from shop to shop. So, she decided it was time to take a step in a new direction.
Although she'd never considered joining a union before, she enrolled in an apprenticeship program with the Sheet Metal Workers Local 16. Now in the second year of the five-year program, she feels she's found her match working with sheet metal.
"It challenges me in the right way," she said. "I really like how much strength there is and how delicate it is at the same time."
Freeman would like to see more women enter the construction trades. She's always willing to offer advice and support to women who might need a little encouragement to take a closer look at a career in the industry.
"If there's anybody out there reading this and if they're interested in the trades, whether it be shop work or out in the fields ... get out there and try it," she said. "Push yourself. Challenge yourself every day."