If you walked into the Orchard Supply Hardware on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley last Wednesday, you might have caught sight of 20 women listening intently to a professional green building trainer, who was explaining to them about construction tools used for everything from sanding and drilling to sawing. This was a glimpse of Women Build, the Bay Area’s first and only all-women construction and solar training program. The program is pioneered by Rising Sun, a non-profit organization that helps people achieve environmental and economic sustainability for themselves and their communities.
For the next three months this spring, women from various backgrounds and ages ranging from 18 to 50 will gather at Rising Sun’s headquarters in Berkeley to receive training that will hone their skills to be ready for union jobs in construction and other related trades. They will learn about workplace safety practices, preparing for job applications and interviews, and practicing basic construction skills through hands-on workshops.
Women Build was launched in response to the low participation of women in the construction trades. “It came about because there are staggering numbers, where roughly 2 percent of tradespeople are women. And that number has actually decreased over time and not increased. Those are good jobs, and women should have access to those jobs,” said Jodi Pincus, the executive director of Rising Sun. Pincus has been heading the organization for ten years and has seen it grow tenfold from a two-person team.
“It’s about dealing with some of the gender issues and creating opportunities and access and also working with the unions,” she said. “Many of them are open to getting women into the trades.”
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2014, in 2013, only 2.6 percent of construction jobs were held by women.
One problem, according to Pincus, is that there is a lack of retention in the construction industry because women tend to feel isolated in a male-dominated industry and there is not a supportive environment once they are in the trade.
Pincus believes that one of the most important things is to change the mindset of women about working in the construction trades. “It’s also looking at the problem from multiple sides, and it’s also telling women that this is a viable job option. This is an opportunity to get good benefits, pension, good wages and opportunity for growth in a field that is non-traditional,” she said.
Rising Sun has been running a pre-apprenticeship program called Green Energy Training Services (GETS), but this is the first time that they have designed a class specifically for women.
“It came about because typically a GETS class is 90 percent male and we usually have two women. Learning from the statistics, we wanted to make a difference in that and we wanted to address those issues,” said Pincus. “And we are lucky enough there are other partners who agreed that this is an issue they have also been fighting for years and years.”
She said that Women Build would not have been possible without the support of the California Workforce Development Board’s acceleration fund and collaboration with organizations like Tradeswomen Inc., the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board, the Workforce Benefits Administration of the Alameda County Social Services Agency, the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council, the City of Berkeley, the West Oakland Job Resource Center and Rubicon Programs, a non-profit organization serving low-income people in the East Bay.
Not only does Women Build attempt to address gaps in technical skills among women, one of the group’s main aims is to get them to be job-ready and increase their chances of getting union jobs. This means that by the end of the program, they will be equipped with certifications including the OSHA-10 and Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) pre-apprenticeship certification. The OSHA-10 training provides entry-level construction workers with the knowledge of recognizing and preventing hazards on construction sites, and MC3 curriculum aims to prepare participants for pre-apprenticeships in any of the construction trades by blending academics with job training.
Equally importantly, Pincus said, the participants will also be educated about issues that women might face in the trades.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that they are entering a male-dominated field. We don’t shy away from the fact that asserting yourself is hard to do for anyone, but especially for women and even more so for women of color,” said Jameyla Kiswani, who works as the GETS jobs placement manager and has been instrumental in developing the curriculum of Women Build.
A big part of the program is also engaging women who are already in the trade to share some of their experiences and challenges of—oftentimes—being the only woman in the field, said Kiswani.
The concerns that seemed to resonate among many of the participants at Wednesday night’s class were the differences in physical strength between men and women and questions about how to cope in a male-dominated environment.
Rokeeda Fernandez, 26, was born and raised in Oakland and attended the workshop with her sister. She said she believes that women might face challenges in terms of physical stamina. “I think men have more stamina, and we just have to get fit so we can have the stamina to do this for a career for a long time. And I figure it will be a challenge once we get a job out there, because it’s all men and I’m pretty sure it will be a little difficult. We need to have that tough skin and know that we can do it, even though we might be the only woman that is on the job,” said Fernandez.
“I know that this is going to be a difficult industry to break into, but I hope the companies will be more open to having women on the job,” said Michelle Monahan, who also calls Oakland her home. At age 50, she joined the program to get out of the grocery industry, where she has been working for many years. “What I’m worried about is that they won’t see us having the same strength. But I think what women can bring is more of a teamwork while men are a lot more competitive,” she said.
During the hands-on workshops, the women could be seen helping each other with their tools. At the end of each day, participants were encouraged to share some of their challenges as well as show appreciation to their colleagues and the trainers.
“The aim is to create such a strong bond between them that after they graduate, they still come back to each other,” said Kiswani. Their hope is that Women Build will form a support network among participants who can in turn rely on each other when they face challenges at their workplaces in the future.
As the first such program in the Bay Area, one of their main challenges was in recruiting participants. The 20 women currently enrolled were found through various social service agencies as well as Tradeswomen Inc., one of California’s first organizations that encourages women’s participation in construction and related trades.
“It took a lot of effort,” said Pincus, “and a part of it is that we haven’t done it previously, and we may have to change our recruitment strategy. And it’s also that women don’t see themselves in this profession. They see this as a male profession. So it’s also about changing the minds of women to see this as a profession that they can get into.”
“We have union partners and they were trying to get women in the trade as well, but I don’t think we have yet navigated the pockets on how to reach women or get the information to women who can use it the most,” said Kiswani. “I think we can learn a lot not just from what is happening here in Berkeley, but also what is happening nationally on how we can tap on to different communities.”
Rising Sun has recently received a Proposition 39 California Clean Energy Jobs Act grant from the state, which they will use to support more women in the trades. The group has plans to hold classes at night and on the weekend to reach out to people who may not be able to leave their current jobs and attend the classes during the day. They are also going to launch a class with 50 percent men and 50 percent women.
“It is all going to be learning,”said Pincus. “We are going to pilot different courses to see what works best.”