LIMA — With the oxygen-acetenyl torch in place, Mandi Meckstroth gives a student the go-ahead to start making the cut. Sparks begin to fly.
Another five high-schoolers — their hair tied back in ponytails — wait their turn. If all goes according to plan, at least one of the young women might choose the trades as a career. At least that’s the goal, Meckstroth said.
With 11 million people employed in the construction industry, women make up one in 10, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. With many companies fighting for talent, women willing to get their hands dirty are finding new careers in unexpected places.
As an educator who preps adults for the workforce, Laura Ball knows about today’s demand for good workers. From resume-tinkering to developing digital skills, Ball has helped fill in the gaps for those needing extra help in finding work. As more and more people come into the Lima Learning Center, she’s watched the job boards explode.
“Unemployment is extremely low everywhere, so everyone that wants a job can get a job,” said Ball, ASPIRE Coordinator with Lima schools and the Lima Learning Center. “But a lot of people are looking too, because the market is so good right now. If they have a job, they want a better job.”
The change has shifted Ball’s responsibilities. Instead of helping individuals just get their GEDs, Ball said she’s had to guide people to what’s necessary after earning the GED. As a result, career counseling and surveys have been added to some of the basic curriculum.
That’s how she got involved with Ohio Women in Trades, a nonprofit group, and helped create a new technical readiness initiative meant to give women interested in the construction careers a better idea of what the job looks like.
Starting in November and lasting nine weeks, the course will provide some safety training, career exploration and physical training for a future career in construction for roughly 15 women.
“It does not guarantee a job, but it lets them know what it takes to be a plumber pipefitter, an electrician or ironworker,” Ball said.
As Ball explained, many women don’t have the same hands-on upbringing more common with their male counterparts. In general terms, men are often encouraged to do some physical labor here or there before adulthood. So those who end up choosing a career in construction find that they already know how to swing a hammer or use a drill. For young women, they may not have the same experiences or exposure to the trades.
“When a woman needs a job, she’s not offered ‘you should do an apprenticeship,’” Meckstroth said.
“They may not see themselves there, and if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” said Karen Vroman-Ells, Ohio Program Coordinator for the National Center for Women’s Equity in Apprenticeship & Employment said. “(Apprenticeships) are the best-kept secret there is. These are family-sustaining wages.”
Working in the trades
Audrey Sheffield earned her Class A CDL in 2003 after recognizing that she needed a skill that could bring in a salary higher than what minimum wage provides. With the license in hand, she found jobs with the Ohio Department of Transporation and construction companies hauling asphalt and stone. Today, she works in utilities with the City of Lima.
“I had my first motorcycle at 17. I thought, ‘I could drive a semi, too.’ I didn’t know where it would take me, but I knew without a college education, I would still be able to make a living,“ Sheffield said.
There were some challenges. Because the majority of the construction industry is male, Sheffield is used to unprofessional comments from older men who may not believe a “woman’s place” is out in the field.
“I’ve dealt with that a lot. Sometimes, they’re surprised that I actually work. I’m not here to milk it and earn a paycheck,” she said.
Societal expectations, however, aren’t just a for men. Sheffield said she’s talked to women who are surprised when she explained her work.
“They say, ‘I never could do your job.’ And I say, ‘Yes, you could. You just have to put forth the effort,’” she said. “I think there’s a lot of women out there that may not have the self-confidence. They may have mentioned interest; they may have been ridiculed instead of encouraged.”
Gina Frick, an architect at Garmen Miller, has seen a similar stigma. Frick and her group, the National Association of Women in Construction, set up a booth at Makerfest to try to create some interest for high schoolers walking through the aisles by educating them about the industry.
“When they think of construction, they think of building and digging,” Frick said.
The group had a steady line of young women expressing some interest, but such stigma creates obstacles to bringing more women into the field. Frick estimated the group would be lucky to get two to three passersby interested enough to think seriously about a career in engineering or construction.
“If a woman wants to work with her hands, she can,” Vroman-Ells said.
Ball added, “If you like being outdoors, or like building things, we might have a super high-paying job that will fit,” Ball said.
Outside of the stigma, there are also some systemic issues associated with some construction jobs. Vroman-Ells mentioned both scheduling and gear as obstacles for some women. For many construction jobs, workers are expected to be on-site throughout the workday and may be required to work overtime. For working mothers who are often expected to handle the majority of childcare, the lack of flexibility can be difficult, Vroman-Ells said. Construction gear, such as steel-toed boots and hardhats, may also come in standard sizes too large for some women.
But while such issues may be problematic, Sheffield said she’s been able to resolve such obstacles as scheduling with a little work or a little family help.
“I make a lot of crockpot meals. I still go home every day and cook dinner and do laundry,” Sheffield said. “I always tell my kids when they start complaining, you need to get (expletive) done.”
Sheffield added, “I have a 7-year-old stepdaughter. I want her to grow up to be strong, and I don’t want her to feel stuck in life. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to rely on another person for her existence. I don’t want her to feel like she has to be married or have a boyfriend to make it.”
The next generation
Back at MakerFest, two high-schoolers — Pandora-Gilboa freshman Grace Torres and Allen East senior Dallas Wright — step out of the boots and work gear they had donned to practice welding with Meckstroth.
“Ninety-nine percent won’t (join the trades), but we showed them the option,” Meckstroth said. “We don’t care about getting everyone.”
Torres and Wright are both thinking about it, though.
“It was pretty cool,” Torres said. “Obviously, I don’t get to do that stuff every day.”
Wright said, “I think I could like it.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.