By Teresa Wiltz
SAN JOSE, Calif. — She likes to say that she slept through the last 13 years of her life, and indeed, much of it is a blur: Abusive relationship. His-and-her arrests for domestic violence. Meth habit. A period of quasi-homelessness. A 37-day stint in jail for petty theft.
Now, at 38, Sandra Alvarez says she is awake — and duly awoken, she is aiming for a massive do-over: She’s newly sober. She’s off cash assistance. She’s got a job temping and a place to call her own. And most importantly, she’s got career aspirations: She wants to work in construction.
“The first time I went on a construction site, I felt some kind of power,” said Alvarez, sturdy and tattooed with a swath of dark, wavy hair. “It’s weird, but I felt like I belonged.”
But the construction field is a hard one to crack, particularly if you’re female. Women comprise less than 3 percent of the trade workforce, roughly the same portion as 30 years ago. The barriers are many. Sexism is a given — like the foreman who told Alvarez he didn’t need her help on his job site, but sure could use her help in the bedroom.
So Alvarez is hanging her hopes on a state-funded “pre-apprenticeship” program in California, where she is learning the basics of the industry, from blueprints and construction math to job safety. Above all, she’ll learn which trade would suit her best. Carpenter or electrician? Ironworker or pipefitter? (She’s pretty sure carpentry is her thing.)
The goal: With some training under her belt — and with some industry contacts — she’ll land a highly coveted apprenticeship that will lead to a good-paying union job.
More women might soon be able to take advantage of similar programs.
These days, states are faced with an aging infrastructure and an aging workforce. And just when the country is considering mammoth investments to repair its deteriorating roads, bridges and highways, there’s a shortage of skilled trades workers — which will only get worse as baby boomers enter retirement. California’s new Road Repair and Accountability Act aims to tackle both problems at once.
Mostly, it’s an ambitious, $50 billion, 10-year building program that will use a gas tax increase to fund road repairs, bridge maintenance and public transit.
But the law also includes an unusual provision: a $25 million investment to get more women like Alvarez into pre-apprenticeships.
The idea is to give disadvantaged Californians, including poor women, the tools they need to get accepted into trade apprenticeship schools — and in so doing, reduce the number of people receiving public assistance while moving more people into the workforce. The law’s funding will be used beginning next year by the California Workforce Development Board, which is the statewide coordinator for the pre-apprenticeship training programs.
“This creates an avenue for middle-class jobs and benefits,” said Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall, the primary sponsor of the legislation. “A lot of women shy away from construction because of the work environment. We’re trying to change that good ol’ boy, business as usual, construction culture.”
These days, states are faced with an aging infrastructure and an aging workforce.
Breaking into the industry means combating stereotypes that construction is men’s work. And many women don’t know how to start to prepare for a career in the trades, said Meg Vasey, a onetime electrician and the executive director of Tradeswomen Inc., an Oakland-based training and advocacy group that offers woman-centric pre-apprenticeships.
Traditionally, construction newbies enter the industry through a state-regulated apprenticeship. In a way, these programs function much like a medical residency for young doctors: Apprentices earn as they learn, over a three to five year period, laboring under the mentorship of seasoned professionals, with some supplementary classroom instruction. Apprentices can join a union from the start, getting a bump in salary as they complete each level of their training. And ultimately, when they graduate, they land high-paying jobs.
But often, to get into these programs, Vasey said, you have to know how and where to find them. Sometimes that means stalking construction sites and begging the foreman to give you a chance. For women in particular, that can be daunting. Other times, there are limited application periods and yearslong waitlists.
Pre-apprenticeships can help fill that void, because class curriculums are devised with input from local trades unions, whose members drop in for guest lectures about what it takes to succeed in a particular trade. (Hint: If you’re scared of heights, a career as a roofer might not be the way to go.)
The current pre-apprenticeship initiative builds on earlier efforts following President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan and a 2014 California program for the clean-energy industry, said Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Development Board. The idea is to get disadvantaged Californians sufficiently trained in the soft skills, like showing up on time, interviewing, and learning how to work on a team, so that they qualify for highly competitive apprenticeships with construction projects.
Advocates argue that women, in particular, benefit from that kind of intensive coaching.
“You have to be intentional about bringing women into the industry,” says Vasey of Tradeswomen Inc. “Otherwise, they’re going to hire the one-armed, one-eyed, ex-offender male before they hire a woman.”
A small cohort of women started entering the construction industry in the late ’70s and early ’80s, during the full bloom of the women’s liberation movement. At the same time, affirmative action required that the construction trades open up to them. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter set a goal to have women constitute at least 6.9 percent of the workforce among construction companies with federal contracts. But women in the trades were met with hazing and hostility. Attrition was high.
The only source of federal construction dollars that can be targeted to women and other disadvantaged groups, including pre-apprenticeships, comes through set-asides from federal highway resources allocated to states, said Lauren Sugerman, national policy director of Chicago Women in Trades, an advocacy and training group. But the set-aside is not mandated and most states don’t elect to use it, she said. Maine used the money in the ’90s on a bridge project, and thanks to aggressive enforcement and funding for pre-apprenticeships for women, the numbers of women in construction there jumped to 11 percent, she said.
And there’s never been a dedicated stream of funding for pre-apprenticeships for women, she said. Over the years, there have been limited demonstration grants through the Job Training Partnership Act. In 1992, Congress passed the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act, which provides $1 million a year in grants and technical assistance to encourage the employment of women in manufacturing, transportation and construction. But the program reaches only a handful of groups around the country.
In California, groups such as PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group focused on economic equity, want the state to do more to ensure that contractors hire graduates from the pre-apprenticeships.
But because affirmative action by public employers is illegal in California, Rainey said, the state can’t set specific goals for hiring or training women or other disadvantaged groups.
And there’s a chance that the broader transportation law won’t survive. Republicans in the California House are pushing to repeal the law, and voters will decide in November whether to continue paying the gas tax hike.
As a means to hire more women and underserved Californians, construction jobs make sense for a lot of reasons. You don’t need a college career to earn a good living: Experienced tradespeople can make between $25 and $50 an hour — even apprentices average $15 an hour to learn on the job.
For people who have taken a few detours on their career trajectory, construction can be quite forgiving, said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director at California’s State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.
And unions like it because it trains women with tools they need to be more qualified, Diaz said.
“What’s going to change the culture is having more women on the job site, first and foremost.”
Many pre-apprenticeship programs are co-ed, but often, the most effective ones are the ones that are exclusively for women, said Vasey of Tradeswomen Inc. To qualify, participants need a GED or high school diploma and proof that they’re eligible to work in the United States. A driver’s license is recommended.
At the Rising Sun Energy Center in Berkeley, instructor Ester Sandoval, a compact woman with a pixie haircut and a ready smile, paces the packed room. It’s an all-women’s class, where women take field trips to job sites, brush up on their math skills, learn how to apply for a job, and work out with a trainer so they’ll be strong enough to haul gear and lift pipes. They also learn how to cope in a male-dominated industry: how to deal with bullying and the art of the snappy comeback.
The students, a variety of ages and colors, hunker down, all furrowed focus.
There’s Annie Batten, 54 and a little shell-shocked after 23 years in prison. There’s Rachel Foreman, 29, a onetime art major who’s working as a house painter after crawling out of addiction and homelessness.
And there’s Timberlie Laramie, at 19 one of babies of the group, wiry and bouncing with energy. She’s still in foster care, and said she really wants to be a neurosurgeon. But she needs a job, like, now, and can’t afford to be in school for the next decade. She figures a career in the trades will keep her brain engaged — and pay the bills.
Sandoval is part cheerleader, part drill sergeant, pushing the women, urging them to speak up, “raise your voice through your core.”
“Fake it till you make it,” Sandoval tells them. “You’ve got to be comfortable talking to folks who don’t look like you.”
Folks who happen to be men.
’Cause those people who don’t look like you are the ones who have the jobs, she said.
Training Around the Country
Several other states, among them Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and West Virginia, have used pre-apprenticeship programs to launch women into careers in construction, cobbling together funding from a variety of sources. Maine was one of the first states to tie public works funding with actively recruiting women to work in construction. In 1994, the Maine Department of Transportation used a $157 million, four-year bridge replacement project as an opportunity to create a more “women-friendly” work environment, funding mentorship programs for women interested in construction. It even offered on-site child care.
And in 2006, Illinois lawmakers earmarked $6.25 million to fund pre-apprenticeships for women and other disadvantaged groups as part of an infrastructure bill. But amid the state’s budget crisis, the money dried up in 2014.
But California’s plan is unusual in its size and scope. It employs a multi-curriculum approach, exposing students to a variety of trades, from metalworking to pipefitting to plumbing, and it requires that the programs work directly with local unions.
“This is part of a trend to make sure that as we invest in roads and transportation, that we’re also making an investment in building a skilled workforce — and that we’re using those public dollars to end those inequities that have shut women out,” said Sugerman, who got her start in the trades as an elevator constructor in 1980.
On a recent day in the backside of the San Francisco International Airport, Sara Glascock, 38, a sweet-faced woman with green pigtails, is giving a visitor a tour of her job site. Pointing, she shows where she stood on the scissors lift, many feet above ground, and strung wires that hang from the ceilings of the warehouse.
Both her parents are professionals with master’s degrees and dreams of sending their daughter to college at Mount Holyoke. “That was never going to happen,” Glascock said, laughing. School never stuck for her. She tested out of high school at 16, and tried on a lot of careers, including stints at Starbucks and coordinating architecture projects. But desk work constricted her. Working with her hands, in the great outdoors, seemed more fun.
After she completed two pre-apprenticeship programs, she found work as an electrician’s apprentice.
She gets up at 4 every morning, and is out the door before 5, trying to beat the traffic. She brushes her hair in the car, slaps on some makeup, scarfs down some breakfast, and is on the job by 7. She’s off by 3:30, and twice a week, she’s taking apprenticeship night classes as part of her training. She doesn’t get much sleep, and she’s constantly battling carpal tunnel from working with her hands. But she loves it.
There are eight women out of 50 students in her class, a big jump from previous classes. And along the way, she’s encountered sexism on the job, like the foreman who wouldn’t make eye contact with her, or the one who just assigned her cleanup and put the more skilled tasks to the male apprentices.
This is a typical tactic to hold women back on the job, said Olwyn Brown, a journeyman carpenter who has taught pre-apprentices in Oakland and San Francisco.
Because of that, “women aren’t trained as thoroughly,” Brown said. “You have to fight for it.”
Glascock lucked out with her current boss, who makes sure that men and women get an equal shot at learning their trade. But even if her next boss turns out to be less enlightened, Glascock said she’s going to keep showing up.
“There’s nothing in this world that’s going to prevent me from having a pension and getting $57 an hour,” she said.
Alvarez leads a life surrounded by men. She lives with her teenage son. She temps as a day laborer at construction sites, where she’s usually the only woman. Her pre-apprenticeship class is co-ed, but the men far outnumber the women.
Even the 12-step meeting she goes to here in San Jose is located in an all-male rehab facility. She goes because it meets on Saturday mornings, close to her all-day class with Working Partnerships USA, a community organization located here in the Silicon Valley, and it’s easy to pop out for a quick meeting.
But after one Saturday session, right after participants recited the Lord’s Prayer, a heavily tattooed man approached her. “My friend wants to meet you,” he insists, gesturing toward a small man standing nearby. Alvarez demurs. The tattooed man presses.
“Why would you do that?” she tells him. An AA meeting, she adds, is hardly the time or place to hit on her.
As she walks back to her class, Alvarez frets. She’s trying to stay focused, stay clean, make a real life for herself, but men don’t take her seriously, she says.
One man who does take her seriously is her instructor, José Mendez. Back in class, he shows her how to read blueprints and use her engineer’s ruler. She hunkers down with her calculator, looking pleased.
“I know it’s not normal for girls to be hitting up construction sites and wanting to work hard,” Alvarez said.
But ever since she worked in a hardware store as a teen, she’s been fascinated with the idea of building things. This is where she belongs.
“I want to run stuff,” she said. “This is my calling.”