As far as I’m concerned, Jennifer Beals was never sexier in Flashdance than when she wore her welding hood and wielded a welding torch. Since 1983, I have, on and off, nursed the fantasy of being one of those girls who can hang with the boys and still be a girl. I wanted to be like my neighbor Katie Betz, who showed up in my driveway one day wearing shorts, nude nylons, and sneakers with bobby socks, a look wholly feminine and made extra impressive by the fact that she arrived on her brother’s dirt bike, slammed on the brakes, dropped one foot to the ground, and sent the back tire skidding in an arc on the driveway behind her.
Many years later, I attempted to harness some of that badass female vibe when I drove myself from Boise to Brooklyn in an 18-year-old Toyota Tercel hatchback that leaked oil. Every time I stopped for gas, I stepped out of the car barefoot and made a big show of wiping off the dipstick and checking my oil. I thought I was really cool.
That’s about as far as it goes for me. I have big (dormant) dreams of being able to slide under my car and tinker around, but it turns out I don’t have enough interest to take a class on what to do once I’m under there — not even one that’s free of charge. But my Flashdance obsession has led me to seek out women in the construction industry who can maybe teach me how to be more like Jennifer Beals.
I’m the asset
In 2010, the United States Department of Labor Statistics reported construction as the only industry where the percentage of female workers remained in the single digits — 9%. Mining came in second-lowest at 13%, followed by transportation, 23%, and agriculture, 24%. The total number of females working in construction (800,000) is down from a high of 1,122,000 in 2007, due, in part, to the loss of 2.5 million construction jobs between 2007 and 2010.
Even though the number of women in the construction industry grew more than 80% from 1985 to 2007, that 9% seems rather measly, especially given that women make up 47% of all industries.
I meet Desiree Wilson, owner of Iron Works Fencing, by email. Beneath her contract license number, her email’s automatic signature reads: Certified Woman and Minority Business Owner, DBE, UDBE*, SBE, MBE, WBE, SLBE/ELBE, SB, SDB, WOSB, EDWOSB, MSB, HUBZone.
The asterisk is hers, not mine, and no, I’m not joking.
After we introduce ourselves and set up a time to meet at her company’s headquarters, I write, “Will you have a welding helmet on? :-).”
“No, not exactly! This is the business office,” she responds. “I could always pull out a hard hat and blueprints, but there isn’t much here, although paperwork is a big part of construction.”
I head to her office in Old Town, where I’m ushered in and escorted through the building by a security guard. He leaves me in front of an office decorated with paper screens and other Asian details. A young woman in high heels and a bright yellow pencil skirt steps out from behind a desk at one end of the room. She has the polished look of a fashion-magazine editor, and I’m nanoseconds away from excusing myself for interrupting her and asking her to point me toward Desiree Wilson.
Instead, I say, “Desiree?” and she responds in the affirmative.
She shakes my hand and offers me a seat at a large, shiny table in the center of the room on top of which sits a huge book of blueprints and a hard hat. For the next 50 minutes, the 36-year-old maintains steady eye contact, crossed legs, and upright posture as she paints a picture of her experience as one of the few females in the steel industry.
Wilson describes herself as “the first one in and the last one out.” As the president, company owner, and project manager, she’s the first on the job to look at the plans and make the bid. She’s there at contract signing and at the end to make sure the job is complete and the check signed.
“People always just kind of wonder, What is she doing here?” she says. “I’m always the most random person in the room. So, if we have a pre-bid meeting or something, I’m walking into the meeting and it’s, like, 30 men in their ripped-up jeans and dirty boots.”
If she has to go to a job site, say at the new Cesar Chavez Community College site, she’ll wear jeans, but that’s about as far as she’ll go to try and fit in.
“I’m not going to go and roll around in the dirt just so I can look like one of those contractors,” she says.
Wilson admits that she does at times feel like an oddity, but she never feels the need to downplay her femininity.
“If anything I feel the opposite. I’m going to put it on blast,” she says, laughing. “They need me, and it’s a nice position to be in. I’m the asset. The way I describe it is, I just have a lot of know-how.”
Desiree Wilson talks construction
Desiree Wilson, owner of Iron Works Fencing, on her experience as a woman in the construction industry.
Wilson attended law school from 2003–2005, earned her master’s degree in business with an emphasis in financial planning and taxation from Cal Lutheran in 2008. Her work as an estate planning and taxation specialist exposed her to businesses across a variety of industries. About four years ago, while consulting for a poorly run company, she became aware of the profit potential in the steel industry. After a year of research, education, and acquisition of multiple certifications, she started Iron Works + Fencing, a million-dollar-a-year company that provides metal fencing, stairs, railings, balusters, and banisters for commercial, government, industrial, and residential projects.
The blueprint sitting on the table in front of me is for the new rental-car center at the San Diego airport, a project Wilson bid for but cannot legally discuss, as the airport has not yet publicly released the results.
“I find it all quite amusing,” Wilson says of her experience as a woman in the construction industry. “I think I’m used to it. It’s probably something I’ve dealt with my entire life. In all of my fields, everything I’ve done, it’s usually male-dominated.”
Because she’s new in the field and often works with men who have been in construction for decades, her ability to “handle” a substantial project often comes into question, leading to “the automatic assumption that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions” or to the suggestion that she’s not doing her job right.
She consciously wants to avoid what she calls the stereotype of the “surly” and “aggressive” woman in construction who has to prove what she knows at all times. Instead, she goes for a “warm” version of direct, efficient, and precise. Occasionally, she has to let up on the warm.
“I try to start off light in the beginning, but if I see they’re not quite getting it, I shift my position. I become more firm and more direct, and I become more, like, ‘I’m telling you how this is going to happen,’ and not, ‘Let’s talk about it how it’s going to happen.’”
She gives a recent example of an estimator she worked with on her bid for the rental-car center who insisted that she make room in the budget for printing everything out on paper. But in construction, printing can incur huge expenses that she claims are not only unnecessary, but also, when done over and over again, can be the downfall of a company, especially when done before the bid has even been won.
“There’s kind of the old school and the way I see it as the new school as far as modernizing the industry. Before, everybody was faxing documents or printing out blueprints, and I’m so opposed to all of that. I can put this up on a flat screen and bid a job and never print out a piece of paper.”
But this particular estimator gave her “his whole spiel” about having been in the business for three decades and having worked with major companies.
“It’s, like, ‘Well, that’s great, but I’m the boss, not you.’ Your 30 years doesn’t mean much when I’m CEO of the company and you’re applying for a job,” she says with a not-quite-mirthful laugh.
Wilson remembers confronting her father, at eight years old, with the statement, “Look, I have rights.” She has never been the apologetic type. Her girlfriends are likeminded, “savvy CEOs,” so she doesn’t have much association with highly sensitive women. And, quite frankly, even if they’re out there, she thinks “those types of women” have no business in the construction industry.
“You have to have a tougher skin because you’re dealing with brutes,” she says. “These are uneducated men who work hard and labor hard, and they don’t care about your feelings. And they don’t care that you broke a nail or stubbed your toe or are having a bad hair day. That’s the last thing on their list of concerns.”
It’s raining men at my job site
The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) fact sheet states, “As of December 31, 2011, an average of 828,000 women were employed in various occupation sectors of the construction industry.” The fact sheet breaks that total into percentages and shows that 74% of those women occupied sales and office positions and 13% occupied professional and management positions. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of women doing the hands-on work.
The weeklong construction camp transforms girls who hammer timidly. “By the end of the week, they’re, like,
‘pow, pow, pow,’ and done.”
On a bright Monday in mid-June, a woman named Dianne Koehle walks me around a fenced-in yard at Kearny High School, where 31 girls in pink hard hats work alongside industry volunteers on day one of a weeklong construction camp for girls. The camp is cosponsored by the San Diego chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and the Stanley E. Foster School of Engineering and Design (formerly Construction Tech Academy). Volunteers from flooring and concrete-cutting companies, the division of apprenticeship standards for the state of California, and organizations such as the Association of General Contractors of America mentor and teach the girls trade skills and safety and help them with their projects. The camp is in its seventh year.
From 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (or later) every day this week, the girls work in two groups: the apprentices and journeymen. The apprentices have never done the camp before. This week, they’ll experience one trade per day: masonry, plumbing, electrical, sheet metal, and surveying. They’ll complete take-home projects such as picture frames made of welded plumbing parts and sheet-metal birdhouses. At the moment, they’re learning about cement and cement stamping.
“You can see they’re a little timid,” Koehle says of the apprentices who stand to the side at one end of the yard in vests, tool belts, and pink hats, listening to a mentor explain the task at hand. They look hesitant, as though, when the mentor asks for a volunteer, they will all take a step back instead of forward. “When they’re hammering a nail, they’re, like, ‘tap tap tap tap tap.’ But by the end of the week, they’re, like, ‘pow, pow, pow,’ and done.”
Across the yard, the journeymen, girls who have gone through the camp at least once before, are framing the walls and floors of what will, at the end of the week, be the school’s new ASB Snack Shack. These girls, too, wear their belts, hats, and vests, but they’re spread out in the yard and hammering away. It’s not even noon on the first day of camp and already three large wooden grids lie on the ground, at least 8 feet tall and 12 feet long. Tomorrow, the girls will frame the roof, install the electrical, and paint. On Wednesday, they’ll insulate and drywall the interior. Thursday they’ll complete all the exterior trim work.
On graduation Friday, all the girls will receive pink tool belts and one girl from each of the two groups will be named Camp Champ and awarded a large pink tool chest. Koehle explains how they earn the title.
“They have to have perfect attendance; exhibit quality craftsmanship and craftwomanship; demonstrate initiative to start and clean up; demonstrate leadership qualities and a positive attitude,” she says.
Each day of camp, the girls and the mentors cast their vote for Camp Champs, and at the end of the week, the results are tallied.
Arianna Grossman (center) plans to apply for a five-year electrician’s apprenticeship.
Koehle introduces me to the 2013 Camp Champ and soon-to-be-senior named Arianna Grossman, who has participated in the camp twice already. We have to yell over the sounds of electric saws and a dozen pounding hammers.
“What isn’t there to love about this?” Grossman says. “You get to experience working with everyone who’s done it as a career, and they show you the real experience. Going on the internet isn’t as close to personal as doing the hands-on. To me, personal is better. You get more of a feel for it.”
Grossman will graduate high school in 2015, and she plans to apply for a five-year apprenticeship program for electricians.
“They’re saying the numbers start about $100,000 your first year,” she says.
I smile politely, thinking she’s just like me with her vibrant little fantasy life, and then I nearly choke on my pen cap when Koehle confirms the number.
“Yeah, she has the apprenticeship, so she’ll start off around 50K, but then she could walk out of there with six figures.”
I pretend to write the number down in my reporter’s notebook, but what I actually write is: “Holy Sh*t! Apply for apprenticeship for electricians!!!!!!”
Grossman’s family supports her ambitions. Last year, her father volunteered with the camp, and this summer, they’re working at home together, putting up siding and reinsulating the house.
Koehle, project coordinator for University Mechanical & Engineering Contractors, Inc., attributes the low percentage of females in the industry not only to the hard work and physical endurance required but also to the idea that “it’s always been more of a man’s world.”
She walks me across the street toward another school building where we can get away from the noise for a few minutes. This week she is in charge of the camp’s safety. That job entails leading a “safety huddle” every morning, where she teaches the girls about protective equipment and other ways of staying safe on the job. In the afternoons, she leads a “flex and stretch.”
Koehle has been in the business for 15 years. As a project coordinator, she works with all the trades and travels between job sites.
“I like being with the men,” she says. “I like the trade. I love building things and seeing things turn into school buildings and hospitals and all the things that we see. Hearing an excavator is music to my ears.”
Her white hard hat bears stickers from a range of unions (plumbers, steamfitters, sheet metal, and so on) as well as some “bling” in the form of blue flower and white diamond jewel-like stickers. She wears her fingernails long and painted bright pink. When I acknowledge them, she laughs.
“Look, here’s the deal with me. I can hang out with the best of the men. I’m not afraid to do anything or attempt any challenge,” she says. “But on the weekends? Oh, yes. I definitely still put on the dress and the heels. I do my hair. I do my nails. I always say we can be a lady outside of the job site.”
We enter a room where volunteers are piling a long table up with pizza boxes and salad bowls. Koehle shows me to a wall lined with poster boards on easels, some shouting out donors and sponsorship levels, others presenting camp schedules and other pertinent information. The poster that draws my eye showcases two photos (one of a building under construction and one of a smiling woman in a hard hat) and a table chart that reads: San Diego County Construction Industry Wages. And sure enough, it shows the starting wage of an electrician apprentice at $55,006. I repeat: the starting wage.
After the mini-tour of the poster boards, Koehle sits me down, looks me straight in the face, and pleads that I keep the story positive. It’s really, really, really important to her.
“This isn’t the days anymore of the cat calls and the whistling going on,” she says. “There’s so much ethics on all the job sites now, proper behavior. Maybe back in the day, that might have been an issue. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Whereas now, you know, a good woman’s a good woman, and the men appreciate that.”
The work is hard, Koehle says, and the women on the sites are often much smaller than the men, but what counts more than strength is endurance and attitude. She spends the next few minutes lulling me with positive-speak about the benefits of working together and getting the job done and how gender doesn’t matter. Then Koehle winds back around to her obsession with building. She giggles a bit and says, “Everyone’s building. I just love it.”
I marvel at that for a moment and wonder what it feels like to be someone who’s so gung-ho about building.
“I’ve always liked to build things, but you know, really? I like to sew, I like to cook, I like to bake, and I like to build,” she says. “I like a little bit of everything. It’s that Jill-of-all-trades thing, just knowing that you know how to do it whether you have to do it or not by yourself, just knowing that you can if you need to. There’s an independence and a freedom to that that’s awesome.”
Construction class for girls
Young women train in a weeklong construction class for girls at Kearny High School.
I take a chance and bring up the whole Flashdance thing. I ask Koehle if she feels kind of amazing to be a babe in boyland. Things have changed from the olden days, she says, though she is willing to admit that every now and again, some old-school chap makes it clear that he isn’t as “forward thinking” as maybe he ought to be. But for the most part, she wants me to know, any good woman who works hard and is not a “Chatty Cathy” will be welcomed.
She then offers a story that she says will tell me “heart-and-soul just what’s going on.”
She often cooks for her crews. When they complete a job with good safety records, she makes enchiladas, chili, and all kinds of spreads. But in November 2013, when she acted as coordinator for the Mesa College Math and Behavioral Science buildings, her oven broke. Unable to bake cookies for the guys, she went to Walmart and picked up tins of cookies to pass around. A couple of days later, on a Friday, when Koehle was fretting about how she, a single mom, would handle Thanksgiving with no oven, one of the sheet-metal guys approached her and handed her some money. He said, “Dianne, I want to give you $20 toward your oven fund.”
“I start crying,” she says. “I’m going, ‘Oh, thank you so much.’ And in the background, I see all these guys going, ‘What are you doing?!’ And you know what? They took one of those tins and they had put ‘D’s Oven Fund’ on it.”
The men had sent the tin around the whole job site and collected hundreds of dollars, and Koehle bought a new oven right after Thanksgiving.
“See?” she says. “The men care. I care for the men in my womanly ways, but the men care. We take care of each other.”
After a brief pause, she continues, this time with a winky look in her eye.
“Seriously, it’s not that tough being on a job site with all men — being one of the few women. Really, now,” she says. “I drive into the job sites every single morning, and I’m happy. The music’s loud, but I like it. I like seeing the men. My favorites are the ironworkers. Not because they’re good boys, but they look good. When they’re up there putting all the steel up, it just looks like a bunch of pirates to me. So I’ll snap a picture and send it to all my women friends, and I’ll go, ‘It’s raining men at my job site, how about yours?’”
It’s not all roses and happy times
Koehle and I spend our last 20 minutes discussing how I can get in on the action. She tells me to pick a trade. I do a quick mental search of my likes and dislikes and remember that I’ve always wanted to make furniture. So I choose carpentry. She points me in the right direction as far as contacts and resources.
When I leave, I text my husband, “What would you think if I became a carpenter?”
He responds, “Sure. That’d be great.”
And when I text back, “Cool. I’m going to look into an apprenticeship,” he sends, “Wait. You’re serious?”
“Yeah, like Flashdance but with a hammer,” I type with my thumbs.
Immediately, my phone rings. He’s calling to tell me that Flashdance was just a movie. He tells me I should talk to Awstin Sauer, a 30-year-old woman he knows from the shipyard where he works. Apparently, he shared my text with her and she offered the recommendation that I take up some kind of a woodworking hobby instead.
Because I don’t have the fancy security clearance necessary to meet Sauer at North Island, where she builds scaffolding and performs other necessary carpentry duties for the Department of Defense, we speak over the phone instead. Her voice is friendly and she laughs a lot.
In 2005, Sauer made coffee for $8 an hour in Bremerton, Washington, a town with a population of approximately 39,000 people, just under a third of which are civilian employees of the military. And 8000 of those civilian employees work at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, where at 21 years old, Sauer hired on as a paid apprentice woodworker. In 2001, she and her husband, who also works in the shipyard, transferred permanently to San Diego. She now makes $25 an hour.
Once we establish her qualifications, I launch my intended line of questioning.
“So, now what were you saying to my husband?” I ask. “The whole thing about my carpentry apprenticeship?”
“Oh, yeah,” she laughs. “I was just saying it would be better to have it as a hobby because doing it every day, like, manual labor, is rough on your body after a while. You know what I mean?”
The term “manual labor” makes me ache all over. Up until this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that an apprenticeship would mean not just sitting in meetings with men or rallying them with enchiladas, but hauling and pounding wood all day every day.
When you first enter Building 73 at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, San Diego detachment, one long hallway stretches the length of city block. Every ten to fifteen feet off the hallway, a door or set of doors lead to the different shops (electricians, building maintenance, riggers, pipefitter shops, and so on) offices, the lunchroom, and the restrooms. Sauer’s shop, number 64 (shipwrights,) is the last set of double doors on the left. The huge room has 30- or 40-foot-high ceilings, exposed duct work, and structural beams. Saws of every description are mounted to work tables all over the room. Some of the larger saws are freestanding. As you walk straight through the room, another set of double doors leads outside to a large open blacktop space. It faces San Diego Bay and would be beautiful except for the dumpsters full of wood scraps or garbage and piles of different lengths of steel tubing and racks of brackets used to hold the tubing together. Half-built wooden staircases and other partially finished projects lay about.
Sauer has the only desk in the room because she’s the only permanent shipwright at the San Diego detachment. On a normal day, when one of the other shops needs to, say, install piping on one of the ships or any other kind of elevated work that could possibly put them in harm’s way by removing them from the safety of the ground, they call Sauer.
She’ll build a railing, some type of staging, an elevated platform, a guard rail, stairs, or anything to make the job safer or easier for the other shops. Or maybe she’ll build a tent to protect outside equipment from inclement weather. Sometimes, when one of the carriers needs a big job, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton sends anywhere from two to forty shipwrights to get the job done. Other times, when Sauer is the solo shipwright around and she needs assistance for a job, she’ll rally guys from the other shops to help.
If Sauer has to install staging in the main engine room of one of the ships, that means taking all her materials (steel piping, wood, brackets) and tools eight stories’ worth of cramped ladder wells, all the while dodging uniformed sailors, other shop workers, and government contractors. And then when the job’s done, it all has to come back up to the hangar bay where she can put it on pallets and get it back to the shop.
“Neck. Back. I’ve had back injuries,” Sauer says. “Your knees, which you constantly bang down on the concrete. It’s just after nine years of doing it, it starts to wear on you.”
Aside from the aches and pains, though, the job has given her a sense of independence and satisfaction with herself.
“After I do a job, I might not have wanted to do it, but then I can say, ‘I did that, and I didn’t need someone else to do it for me,’” she says. “At home, my mother-in-law calls me a she-man because I can fix stuff at the house. Shelving or basic household things that break. Like the toilet. Carpentry can help you think mechanically. It helps your brain see how something’s put together.”
In the beginning of her time in the shipyard, she felt she had to prove herself. Yes, every apprentice has to prove himself, but she says it’s doubly true for women.
“As a woman, you probably have to prove yourself more just so they don’t think you’re that woman who’s going to make everybody do everything for her,” she says.
And yet, the men are also quick to offer help.
“When I first hired in, I would have people ask me all the time, ‘You want me to carry your tools for you?’” she says. “It’s, like, ‘No, I can carry my own tools, thanks. You want me to carry your tools for you?’”
She scoffs in annoyance and then laughs.
Recently, Sauer, who is six months pregnant, followed the advice of her doctor and traded her job of building shipping crates and scaffolding for computer work and Excel spreadsheets. It has given her body a bit of a break and reinforced for her the idea of keeping her eye out for another job that isn’t so physically demanding, “something that’s off the tools,” she says. She doesn’t want to leave the federal government because she likes the employment stability; nor does she care to leave the company of the men she works with.
“Obviously, working mostly around men is not roses and happy times,” she says. “But they’re not...how do I put it...they’re not overtly disgusting, I guess you could say.”
We both laugh.
“Now I’m just so used to it,” she says. “I think I would go crazy if I had to work with a bunch of women all day. Men are easier to get along with because they’re more laid back.”
But, she says, “I try to have a couple girlfriends and hang out when I’m not at work because I need a break from being around men all the time.”
We’re about to sign off when Sauer asks me to please not include her in the pictures for this article. What she doesn’t tell me, I hear from my husband: if her picture is published in the paper, she has to buy donuts for everyone in her shop.
“I’ll have to hear about it from everyone,” she says.
I’ve heard my husband say similar things about the guys at the shipyard, how they’ll use anything they can as fodder for teasing. These days, at six months pregnant, Sauer’s condition is the target of all the “dumb” jokes her coworkers can muster.
“Boy stuff,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, he finally found it.’”
She shrugs it off. “It makes the day go by faster when you have someone to joke around with,” she says. “You have to be able to let it roll off your back.”
Before we hang up, I admit to Sauer that she’s probably right; the carpentry apprenticeship may not be in my future; my skin is paper thin and I cry a lot. Plus, I don’t like to work hard. Not physically, anyway. “I just want to be like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance,” I confess. “She was so sexy with her welding torch.”
Sauer laughs and says, “Yeah. But doing it every day? Probably not so much.”