August 13, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – “I’ve always been handy with my hands, but I never thought a woman would be able to get into the business,” says Laborers Local 79 shop steward Melissa Edwards, 26, of Far Rockaway, Queens. “When I got in here, it opened up a whole ’nother world.”
Edwards, now the mother of a 1-year-old son, graduated from Nontraditional Employment for Women’s pre-apprenticeship program for women seeking to enter the building trades six years ago. She returned to the organization’s headquarters on West 20th Street for an open house Aug. 11, saying that going through the program was “the best decision I ever made.”
The 38-year-old program gives classes seven or eight weeks long that teach “how to be a good first-year apprentice,” says Jessica Suarez, NEW’s director of strategic initiatives. It enrolls 400 women a year, about one-eighth of those who apply. It teaches a combination of “hard skills,” such as carpentry, electrical work, and painting, and “soft skills,” such as how to go through a job interview. NEW also provides social services such as help finding child care and housing.
Participants learn the physical aspects of the job, such as using hand tools, and also go on field trips to job sites to learn about different trades, says Marie Sullivan, who went through the program 16 years ago and is now training coordinator for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 15. She periodically comes back to NEW to talk to students.
The program places about 275 women a year in jobs, says Suarez. About half get into the building-trades unions—the Carpenters, Electrical Workers, and Laborers are the “big three”—and the rest in nontraditional jobs at Con Ed and in fields such as transportation and facilities maintenance. Participants must be at least 18 with a high-school diploma or GED, Suarez says, “but as long as you can physically do the work, there’s no age limit.”
Dolores Tanner, a 52-year-old Long Islander, was the oldest one in her class last fall. She’d heard about NEW the previous summer, after she waited on line all night for an application to get into the sheet metal workers’ union. In May, she started work as a member of SMART Local 28.
“I love doing construction work,” she says, but when she tried to get into a union 30 years ago, “they really weren’t very accepting of women. Now it’s more open.” Going through NEW “gave me the confidence I might not have had.”
Myrtle Wilson, a 47-year-old mother of two from the Bronx, came to NEW two years ago after she saw an ad for it on the subway. She’d been working in a medical billing and collections office and had done nonunion construction work. “I worked hard to make a lot of money for other people, and it never trickled down to my pocket,” she says. “I wanted prevailing wage. I wanted to be compensated for the hard work that I do.”
She’s now 100 hours away from completing her apprenticeship in Local 79, and her younger son is about to start college. “I liked the physicality of the work,” she says, when asked why she picked the Laborers. “That may sound crazy, but it’s true.”
Women with children need to know that programs like this are available, she adds. “It gives you the opportunity to turn your life around,” she says. “It gives you a camaraderie, it gives you a sisterhood, it gives you the ability to bond with women who’ve been in the business for 15 to 20 years.”
Sudan Haai, 35, a nonprofit organization manager, said she came by to check the program out because she’s wanted to work in construction since she was in high school—preferably as an electrician, plumber, or welder.
NEW also provides support for graduates trying to cope with what is still a very male world. “We want to give enough support so they stay for the long haul,” says Christine Culpepper, a Laborers training instructor and member of Local 79’s women’s committee. The committee is also working with the Bronx community organization CASA to ensure that housing in the neighborhood under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed rezoning plan is built with union labor, hires local residents, and gives women “real opportunities,” she adds. “So many women in the nonunion industry, they give them a flag, and that’s it.”
On the business side, NEW encourages contractors to hire graduates through “Signature Projects,” in which a percentage of the workers in every trade must be female. JPMorgan Chase and the Ford Foundation have just signed on, and 44 have been completed, said Maureen Henegan, CEO of Henegan Construction, which specializes in nonresidential interior work. The firm’s subcontractors, she told LaborPress, find that NEW graduates are some of their most motivated workers.
“This is a terrific organization for women to get wonderful training,” New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon told LaborPress. “If there were more programs like this, I’d be very happy.”