Building a Sisterhood of Journeywomen

How one nonprofit is opening the door for women in construction.

With a huge number of men retiring out of the construction workforce, some of their positions are going to be filled by non-traditional construction workers.

“The diversity is going to naturally happen, with women and people of color coming in,” said Sharon Latson-Flemister, marketing and communications director for Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), a nonprofit organization that works toward women’s economic equality by helping women enter and succeed in well-paid, skilled jobs traditionally held by men. 

Since 1987, CWIT has run the Technical Opportunities Program (TOP), a 12-week, 180-hour program designed to give women with a high school diploma or GED assistance in getting into trade apprenticeship programs. Once accepted, they meet two evenings a week and all day Saturday. The basic curriculum includes math, test preparation (including mechanical and numerical reasoning), job readiness and basic construction skills. The women also have the opportunity to visit various apprenticeship programs and gain some hands-on experience.

Unlike many other pre-apprenticeship programs, however, TOP includes physical training. “We do upper body strength training, because we know this is where women need to concentrate when they go into apprenticeship programs. They may have to be able to carry 50 pounds up and down a ladder,” said Latson-Flemister.

Another departure from the ordinary pre-apprentice curriculum is the poetry class that helps women learn to express themselves.

TOP participants gain “an incredible community of support and mentoring,” according to Latson-Flemister. The women come from all walks of life — they include medical professionals, teachers, beauticians and women with prison records — but form strong bonds as they go through the course together.

The curriculum covers how to handle sexual harassment on a jobsite and practical matters such what women should do when bathrooms aren’t functioning or they’re given ill-fitting clothes and/or equipment. “These are things that men haven’t looked at when they’re dealing with women on the job,” said Latson-Flemister.

Related: OSHA Alliance Elevates Safety Issues for Women in Construction

The program has a success rate of about 70 percent in helping women qualify for apprenticeship programs. (Some women leave the program because of family considerations or because they decide against a career in construction.)

For women who need more immediate employment, CWIT also offers a 12-week, hands-on welding class that prepares them for manufacturing jobs. This program doesn’t require a high school diploma or GED. If women are interested in later becoming an apprentice in sheet metal or iron work, having the welding training may help.

Many TOP graduates return to volunteer for the program after they become journeywomen. “One of our graduates, who had been incarcerated for over 15 years, came into our program with an ankle bracelet,” said Latson-Flemister. “Now, as a full journeywoman, she has a car and a house. She tells participants, ‘When I first started I tried to get a job at McDonalds, and they told me no. But now I can build one.’”

The relationships that the women form in these programs will support them throughout their careers, Latson-Flemister added. “Our tag line is, ‘Build a career, join a sisterhood.’”

 

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

Image credit: Chicago Women in Trades