By Seth Daniel
Alanna Felix and Patricia Flores are just two of hundreds of girls that attend Northeast Vocational School in Wakefield, but they often find themselves alone in their studies.
That’s because they study carpentry, and they are two of only three young women in their course of study. However, a new effort spearheaded by Wynn Boston Harbor and a conglomeration of vocational schools – as well as the Boston Building and Trades Council – looks to change those numbers significantly and get more women on construction sites via vocational school programs.
“We are just two of three girls in our shop,” said Felix last Thursday, while attending a Girls in Trades conference at a Dorchester union hall with hundreds of other girls interested in the trades. “We deal with the guys but it’s really not too bad. These kinds of jobs really are open to us. Girls can have an easier time getting a job in the trades now. Being a girl in the trades, we have a different strength. We have a more gentle touch in carpentry and do better detail work I think.”
Added Flores, of Revere, “There are certain things I can’t do in the shop, things I can’t personally do. That really doesn’t have to do with the fact that I’m a girl though…I don’t know yet if I want to go into the trades, but I do feel like any job I would want to pursue is open to me. I don’t think doors are closed because I’m a girl.”
It was a theme throughout the conference, and seemingly a new door has opened throughout the state to help young women enter high-paid construction careers at a time when the labor market is demanding more workers and job sites are clamoring for more diversity in the workforce – most especially women, who are historically underrepresented in the trades.
Getting women into the trades and into design phases and onto the work site – including Wynn, where the company is still struggling to meet diversity goals for women working on the site – has been easier said than done.
At a February meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, Wynn reported that female participation in the construction phase was the one part of their diversity hiring goals where they were falling short. The goal of 6.9 percent is still unmet, with about 6.5 percent of the total work hours being done by women. In the same vein, contracts for women businesses involved in construction were also too low, with 4.1 percent of the 5.4 percent goal being met.
That’s where Girls in Trades was born, to help streamline young women in vocational schools into the trades and on job sites.
Jenny Peterson of Wynn Boston Harbor said the initiative was born at a casual lunch between Wynn and Minuteman Regional Vocational School in December 2015. By last spring, the first conference had been organized to get the effort going.
“It was so successful that we had to separate it out and have two conferences, one here and one in the western part of the state,” said Peterson, of Wynn Boston Harbor. “We found that the unions had very little contact with these schools and these girls. We wanted to engage this group and get them connected to the work and get them onto our job site. We’ve done a lot, but we have more to do.”
This year, more than 300 girls from vocational schools all across eastern Massachusetts had travelled to the IBEW Union Hall in Dorchester to learn about the trades and to be encouraged by union representatives and women who are currently on job sites.
Brian Doherty of the Boston Building and Trades Council said it is time to get more women on job sites. He unveiled a goal of 20 percent women in the trades’ workforce by 2020, with the state now sitting at 7.5 percent.
He said other countries, such as India, have more than 50 percent participation for women in the trades.
“Only four out of 10 college graduates makes more money than a union construction worker,” he said. “It is our goal in Massachusetts that we would have 20 percent women participation by 2020…In America right now, two percent of the construction workers are women. That number is 7.5 percent in Massachusetts. In India right now, half of the construction workers are women. Why aren’t we doing that here? We want to make sure everyone has a chance at these good jobs regardless of gender. Let’s get more women in construction.”
During the conference, a major piece of the program was bringing women, who are currently on job sites, to speak to the young women considering careers in the trades.
Twanya Lawson, who works as a heavy equipment operator, filled that role to a ‘T.’ Lawson currently operates a loader on the Wynn Boston Harbor site with Local 4, and has been working in the union for 11 years.
She said that most men don’t realize she is working in a job that is male dominated, but she said she is very up front about it – and that the girls shouldn’t be worried about how people will react to them.
“I was offered the chance to operate heavy equipment,” she said. “I was like, ‘Me?’ I couldn’t believe it. I went from $25 per hour to $33 per hour…You go to the job sites and you’re walking with your head up high because you’re an owner. You have a house and a car and a motorcycle too. You go on these sites and see these older guys in the union who have been there 20 or 30 years. They ask you what you’re doing there. They say you must be a laborer or something. I always say, ‘No, actually I’m an operator and you’re going to be working with me today.’ Their faces are great. We’re girls. That’s the fun of it…I have to tell you to believe in yourself and don’t let them break you down.”
The message seemed to resonate with the young ladies in the room, who cheered Lawson heartily and wore their ‘Carpentry Shop’ and “HVAC Shop’ sweaters proudly from their respective schools.
Many said they have been steered away from the trades and the lucrative jobs and careers that go with them, but they don’t think that will be the case any more.
“I would certainly consider the trades, even though I’m in auto shop now,” said Ashley Verde of Chelsea. “There are a lot of people who think we can’t do a job because we’re weak. They see a girl and think we’re in the wrong class or shop. My mom was trying to steer me to cosmetology rather than auto shop or trades, but this is what I’m interested in. Seeing everyone here today, it shows we can do it too.”