Skip to content

Rosie the Riveter, Redux

electrician.jpg

Despite the sexism on many construction work sites, good wages and benefits sway women toward careers with drills and screwdrivers. (Courtesy of Victoria Hamlin)

Carpenter.jpg

Labor experts and advocates say that as the workforce ages, employers are more likely to hire tradeswomen. (Courtesy of Victoria Hamlin)

After she dropped out of college in 2002, Natilie Rojas started working three jobs and still wasn’t making enough to cover rent, insurance, gas, and student-loan payments.

A family friend pointed Rojas in a direction she never would have thought about: an electrician’s apprenticeship program that was recruiting women. Three years after she started, she earns nearly $24 an hour, along with a pension and benefits, wiring hospitals, schools and other buildings in the Los Angeles area. She says she is making more than many of her peers who stayed in school.

“Had someone told me, ‘You don’t need to go to college. You can make this much money out of high school,’ I would have said, ‘OK!’ ” said Rojas, 26. “My friends with degrees are not paid as much as I am not having a college degree, being a dirty construction worker.”

When she goes to work, Rojas is often the only woman among hundreds of men, and sexism can be overwhelming on many construction sites. But with contractors facing a shrinking labor pool, trade schools, labor unions and community colleges all over the country are recruiting women as never before. Some find out quickly the locker-room environment isn’t for them, but many women, like Rojas, are finding career contentment where they never knew to look.

“If you never see a woman working in the field, how would you know that it’s something you can do?” said Alexandra Torres, executive director of Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles, an organization that prepares women for apprenticeships in construction.

Torres took her efforts even further this year, opening a charter school in Long Beach, Calif., called Rosie the Riveter Charter High School, where students are prepared for life in the trades. About 60 percent of the student body is female. Torres wants to make sure a generation of women will be exposed to unconventional and well-compensated careers like Rojas’.

The school opened in September with a normal academic curriculum and will add classes in the spring that introduce students to the trades, as well as engineering and architecture. The iconic Rosie image, created in the 1940s when men went off to war and women replaced them in the factories, is printed on the students’ navy blue uniforms.

Besides the high school, Torres runs pre-apprenticeship programs for adults to prepare women to make a decent living in hard hats. Construction jobs, especially when connected with a union, provide some of the highest-paying jobs for people without college degrees. Wages can be more than $30 an hour, plus benefits, for an electrician who has completed a five-year apprenticeship. That is far higher than pay for secretaries or child-care workers, two occupations that are dominated by women and usually do not require college degrees. The typical work schedule, starting in the early morning and finishing in the midafternoon, also allows single mothers to take care of children after school.

Nationwide, only 3 percent of construction jobs--which include electrical work, carpentry, plumbing, painting, masonry and heavy-machinery operation--were held by women in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This dearth of female workers occurs despite the federal government’s requirement that its contractors’ payrolls contain 6.9 percent women.

Students in Torres’ programs learn the basics of power tools and taking measurements, but they are also briefed on sexual-harassment laws, advised on how to dress (steer clear of anything low-cut or tight), and told what to bring (a “survival kit” of toilet paper, toilet-seat covers, tampons and disinfectant).

While sexual-harassment laws curb outright abuse and give women recourse, harassment still happens on a regular basis, several female construction workers said. Early in Rojas’ apprenticeship, she said, a male co-worker groped her. When she confronted him, he claimed it was an accident, and she dropped the subject. Even without being physical, male co-workers can still make the work environment unsavory in other ways.

“If you’re sharing a bathroom with 200 men, you’re probably going to read something about yourself sitting there,” Rojas said. In all but two of the sites she worked on in the last three years, she has seen herself mentioned or depicted on the walls of portable toilets. Once, she told her foreman about sexually graphic drawings and comments about her on the bathroom wall, and he painted the interior black to prevent repeat occurrences.

Tradeswomen and their advocates say that the sexism that still pervades the industry can make it hard for women to stay on the job after they get it.

Jocelyn Atkins became a carpenter after three years of earning $17,000 a year in social services. Now in her last year of apprenticeship, after which she will become a journey-level carpenter who can make at least $60,000 a year, the 30-year-old Atkins is ready to quit, despite a salary that has paid for vacations and let her start a savings account and the enjoyment she has found in building with her hands. She says she is now applying to law school because she can no longer tolerate the homophobia and sexism that she says run rampant among her co-workers.

“It’s not so much the work I don’t like,” Atkins said. “It’s the mentality and culture.”

In that culture, Atkins found pornographic magazines in the break room after she returned from vacation, and she heard men tease each other about being gay and use names for tools that refer to female anatomy.

“It’s not like any other workplace I’ve been in,” she said. “It’s like an old boys’ club.”

Tradeswomen and contractors say the industry’s machismo has lessened somewhat in the last 30 years. Lynn Harker, who owns an electrical-contracting company in Sacramento, Calif., said that male supervisors have told her they did not want women on their crews in the past, but attitudes are shifting, especially among younger men.

“Once you prove yourself, most people are very accepting,” Harker said. “Some won’t accept women no matter what. Those are the men who wouldn’t vote for a woman president.”

The boys’ club mentality might have to change more quickly, though, to keep the labor pool replenished. As in many other industries, baby boomers are expected to retire in large numbers in the near future. Contractors and unions need to ramp up recruitment.

“They know they don’t have enough workers,” said Beth Youhn, a former crane operator who heads Tradeswomen Inc., a group serving tradeswomen in Oakland, Calif. “Not everybody is saying they want women, but businesses can’t pick and choose as much.”

Despite the clear challenges of wielding tools while female, female construction workers say that besides paying well, the job can be fulfilling. And once these women finish their apprenticeships, their careers can be not only lucrative but also flexible.

“I could stop after the apprenticeship and pop out six kids, wait till they leave for college, and then go back,” Rojas said. “What other career has that?”

E-mail: al2501@columbia.edu