When Elizabeth Skidmore entered the construction trade industry 29 years ago, it was to pursue her passion to become a carpenter. Before long, she had another goal: getting more women into the field. Women at the time made up about 3 percent of construction workers across the country, a figure that remains unchanged today. But in Massachusetts, the number of women in construction apprenticeship programs reached 7.5 percent last year, up from less than 5 percent in 2012, thanks in part to the advocacy of the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues, an organization Skidmore cofounded in 2008. Both the group and the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, where Skidmore works as a business representative, are part of a newly formed statewide coalition seeking to increase the female workforce in construction to 20 percent by 2020. The coalition, dubbed the Northeast Center for Tradeswomen’s Equality, launched “Build a Life That Works” a campaign to entice more women to join the trades. Skidmore, 51, recently spoke to Globe reporter Katheleen Conti about the future of women in construction in the midst of the state’s building boom, and what it was like to enter a male-dominated field.
1. As she approached graduation at Tufts University, where she majored in French, Skidmore couldn’t help but notice that all the adults she knew constantly complained about their white-collar jobs. A good but reluctant student — “I’d gone to college because that’s what I was supposed to do” — Skidmore said she wanted something “more fulfilling” and “outside the box.” So in 1989, less than a year after graduating, she started her apprenticeship in carpentry, a trade that also includes concrete, pile driving, and millwright work. She faced some discrimination from men at work sites, but says her 5-foot-10½-inch frame silenced many of the naysayers.
“I just really wanted to be a carpenter. It spoke to the rebellious part of me that supposedly women can’t do this job. One guy looked me up and down [at a construction site] and said, ‘I don’t believe in women in construction.’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus, so let’s get back to work.’ It’s harder for men to stand next to me and say ‘you can’t do this’ when I’m taller than them. I was really eager to learn from anybody willing to teach me, and I was a really good worker. You start with a new crew over and over again, so there are many first days. . . . Almost every day I would be faced with something like, ‘Oh, no I can’t do that.’ Either I thought I wasn’t strong enough or didn’t have the craftsmanship to do it, and it’s a thought I had two seconds before I did the thing I thought I couldn’t do.”
2. Skidmore’s first job in the field involved converting a Victorian mansion in Malden into the headquarters of the former general contractor A.J. Martini Inc. The only requirement to get into the carpenters union was to land that first job. Unsure as to how long she’d actually be working on the project, Skidmore rushed over to the Local 218 office in Malden after her first shift, still covered head-to-toe in dirt.
“I went to open the door and I couldn’t. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to think I’m not strong enough to open the door.’ I was trying so hard [to open it] and one of the officials came running out: ‘Don’t break down our door!’ — it was [controlled by] a buzzer. The one outdated thing they asked on the form at the time was your wife’s name. I looked into both union or nonunion and talked to people in the industry and it quickly became clear union was the way. A union is the only place where there’s no pay gap for women, or for people of color. I started a women’s committee in Local 218 when I first got in. And that committee met for 13 years.”
3. Skidmore spent a decade working on projects that included building drain pipes during the Big Dig, and constructing an elevated road near Logan Airport’s Terminal A. She was promoted to assistant project manager when the former Christopher Columbus school in the North End was being converted to apartments. Soon after, an opportunity came up to work with the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, guiding businesses that had just entered the union. A significant part of what she does now is finding ways to get more qualified women into the union and the trades. But she doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer.
“I like the idea that I was outside of people’s stereotypes, but also there were women who paved the way before me. Women started going into the trades in 1978 when [President Jimmy] Carter set a goal for hiring women for construction projects. So those women to me are really the trailblazers. I was coming behind them and getting the benefits from what they’d already done.”
4. Skidmore said women across the country have taken advantage of recruitment and training programs, but that work remains scarce for most of them due to discrimination and lack of enforcement of workforce requirements. Skidmore has been working with state and local agencies to ensure jobs with federal and state funding hire women — and she’s noticing some improvement. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and the companies behind the Wynn Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield casinos under construction, are among the sponsors of the statewide initiative to have 20 percent of construction jobs filled by women by 2020. In Boston, where the building boom shows no signs of slowing, construction companies since last year have been required to show good faith efforts to guarantee that 12 percent of all hours worked go to women — up from 10 percent. Industry leaders in other states have asked Skidmore to help them launch recruitment programs.
“We encourage folks to come to these [Build a Life That Works] monthly open houses. We want to help these women who are ready and able to do this. Folks say women don’t want to do this work and that’s not true. They just don’t know how to get in. We have an online guide [for companies] on how to meet workforce goals . . . There’s been a persistent policy failure to open these careers for women.”
5. Skidmore grew up in Chicago, but spent summers in Maine with her grandparents. It was there that she and her cousins learned how to “build tree houses, and climb on rocks and learn to swim, be outdoors and be physical.” Her family later moved to Houston, where some of her first jobs included babysitting, cat and dog sitting. At age 13 she started working at a veterinarian’s office.
“I would clean out the cages, I got to hold the animals when they got their shots, I got to learn a lot, got to watch some surgeries. He hired me because I pestered him. Persistence is definitely one of my strong suits.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.