Three workers discuss their choices, lives and love of the work they do
FAIRFAX, Va. – On many job sites across the country, women in the construction and labor trades are few and far between. Although apprenticeship programs were open to women in 1978, many women seeking a career they can be passionate about miss the opportunity to try a labor trade simply because they don’t know about the possibility.
Women in Washington are finding the unionized sheet metal apprenticeship program more and more often. Currently, Washington State is one of the top states in the country when it comes to the number of sheet metal female apprentices currently in the program. Many of them in Washington hail from the western side and the training center for Local No. 66 in Everett. In its current apprenticeship classes, there are 33 female students, who account for more than 10 percent of the class. Most states – even those with multiple training centers – have five or fewer enrolled.
Offered at 160 training centers across the United States and Puerto Rico, the accredited, five-year apprenticeship program allows students to learn in the classroom while they build hands-on skills and earn at least $38 per hour on the job site. All students attend on, what is similar to, a full-ride scholarship, so they graduate with zero college debt. Students can also earn college credits, which they can use to earn their associate or bachelor’s degree.
In total, the International Training Institute, the education arm of the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry, reports 251 out of 8,000 active apprentices across the country are female, based on 142 out of 150 training centers reporting. Although women account for 2 percent of the apprenticeship classes across the country, the numbers are improving.
“The wages and benefits are attractive during their apprenticeship as well as the training provided,” said Eric Peterson, training coordinator for the Western Washington Sheet Metal training center at Local No. 66. “They like the nature of the work we’re creating out of a flat piece of sheet metal. Some of the apprentices are moms trying to support their families, and some just like to work with their hands and try something different.”
Sandra Darling-Roberts, 38, ran a small housekeeping company before starting her sheet metal apprenticeship. Although she graduated from the program last November, she used it as a stepping stone and is currently earning her bachelor’s degree in labor studies, health and safety from the Labor College. She earned credits during her apprenticeship to earn her associate degree.
With a daughter in high school, Darling-Roberts enjoys the lifestyle afforded to her by the sheet metal industry.
“It allows me to make the kind of living to give my daughter the life I like to,” she said. “I love the physicality of it. It keeps me in shape, and it keeps me sane. It’s like having a full-time workout each day.”
Women who came before her helped to lay the ground work for her apprenticeship, she said.
“Being here, in a local with more women, I didn’t feel like I have to be the representative,” Darling-Roberts added. “Going to work isn’t political. This isn’t the first time these men have worked with women. They’re not surprised when they see me. The sisters that came before us have set the stage.”
Darling-Roberts takes her stories to job fairs and schools to recruit whenever she has the opportunity.
“I didn’t get into the trade until I was 30. I didn’t have the opportunity,” she said.
Although many women are intimidated by the physical nature of the industry, the work isn’t all about grueling physical labor. Safety regulations make it easier on all workers’ bodies, reducing injuries and long-term ailments caused by pushing themselves on the job.
“It’s no longer just muscle. You have to be smart about safety,” Darling-Roberts said. “Thirty years ago, they pushed themselves and now they deal with back problems and injuries. We don’t have to be as strong as sheet metal workers had to be 20 to 30 years ago.”
Liz Fong, 32, earned her bachelor’s degree in Christian theology and was heading for her MBA when she decided she didn’t want to be in an office for the rest of her life. She was working at a Portland, Ore. coffee shop when she attended Oregon Tradeswoman, a free class offered to introduce women to the trades. During the class, Fong completed some hands-on work in sheet metal and realized it was just the opportunity for her. She is now working on her third year in the apprenticeship.
“I realized I didn’t want to work in an office. Here you’re creating something, and you’re moving all day. There is constant flow,” Fong said. “It seemed the most diverse (of the trades). We fabricate our stuff. We install our stuff and we provide maintenance. There were many levels and places to grow. I thought the trade was broad enough to keep me interested.”
Like Darling-Roberts, she also hasn’t had any negative experiences on the job site.
“I’m treated like a little sister,” Fong said. “It would be nice if women knew it was an option – and a lucrative option. We can do it. It’s not about being super strong. It’s about working smart.”
The industry isn’t easy – make no mistake. But safety requirements level the playing field between men and women, tall and short, fit and unfit, she added.
“We all – men and women – have strengths and weaknesses. Heavy lifting is just a small portion of what we do as sheet metal workers. With the right training, equipment and teamwork, we can work smarter and more safely than we have in the past,” Fong said. “If you show up with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn and to work, that’s what makes you successful in sheet metal or anywhere you go.”
Shannon Moore, 29, was a bank teller when her brother’s friend introduced her to the trade. As an apprentice, she met and married her husband and had her son, who is now a toddler. She graduated from the apprentice program this summer.
“You definitely have to be one of those women who doesn’t mind getting dirty. When I was in high school, I don’t remember this being an option for me.” Moore said. “I like being outside. Being out in the field, you get to see all the other trades and how everything fits together, especially when you’re doing HVAC; it’s like a big puzzle. You get to see how you’re supplying air to all parts of the building at the end and see how it all works together.”
More than 15,000 apprentices are registered at training facilities in the United States and Canada. The ITI is jointly sponsored by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA).
ITI supports apprenticeship and advanced career training for union workers in the sheet metal industry throughout the United States and Canada. Located in Fairfax, Va., ITI produces a standardized sheet metal curriculum supported by a wide variety of training materials free of charge to sheet metal apprentices and journeymen.
For more information about ITI, visit www.sheetmetal-iti.org or call 703-739-7200.