scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Moms are making their way into construction industry

Colleen Donnellan, who has been a sheet metal worker for nearly 30 years, with her daughter, Jillian Harvey, 7.Submitted by colleen donnellan

Historically, the construction industry has been a male-dominated field, but there’s a push to change all that.

Working construction can pay well — much more than fields typically populated by women, such as home health care, child care, and retail. A first-year building-trades apprentice earns $17 to $21 per hour, plus health insurance, a pension, step increases, and an annuity plan. And with state and federal labor offices estimating that the construction trades can expect 30 percent job growth in Greater Boston between 2012 and 2022, there is room for new workers.

A 1983 city ordinance mandates that construction firms put forth a good-faith effort to guarantee women work 10 percent of the hours on major projects. Nevertheless, in 2008, it was just 2 percent. But the number is rising — in 2014, women worked at least 4.4 percent of hours on these Boston building sites.

The Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI), comprised of union leaders, government representatives, community organizers, tradespeople, and researchers, is a driving force behind the increase. Its goal is 20 percent for women by 2020. Susan Moir, director of research for the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-convener of PGTI, has her sights set higher. “Women should make up 50 percent by 2050; there’s no reason why not,” Moir said.


Some women find their way into the building trades through friends and family, the traditional route. In 2011, Building Pathways, a six-week pre-apprenticeship training program was launched to introduce women and minorities to the industry. According to a case study published by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City last fall, more than half of its 125 graduates were women.

There are also efforts to strengthen the pipeline from vocational schools to union-apprenticeship programs. On March 30, the first-ever Massachusetts Girls In Trades Conference drew more than 400 female students. Elizabeth Skidmore, business representative and organizer for the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and a PGTI member, said: “There are 3,000 high school girls in building-trade programs in Massachusetts. If we can get 10 percent of them to join union-apprenticeship programs, it would make such a difference. Imagine if we could get 90 percent.”


Zorica Pantic, president of the Wentworth Institute of Technology, talks with Girl Scouts about careers in construction and engineering.Soleina Garcia/Wentworth Institute of Technology

Wentworth Institute of Technology is reaching out to high schools to attract underrepresented students, including young women. It works with grade-school pupils, as well, and holds annual Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs on campus for regional members of the Girl Scouts of America. “It’s important for girls to have role models so they can see it is possible to have careers in construction and engineering,” said Zorica Pantic, college president. In addition, partnerships through Building Pathways and with industry leaders and companies lead to apprenticeships, mentorships, and scholarships within Wentworth’s associate’s- and bachelor’s-degree programs.

Once in the industry, women can face roadblocks, one of the more significant being child care. (Workers often are required to head to work long before day-care facilities open.) PGTI and Building Pathways are part of a team developing child-care solutions for women in construction.

As for the long-held belief that women simply don’t belong, the building trades are doing their “best to clean up the industry,” said Brian Doherty, general agent of the Building and Construction Trade Council of the Metropolitan District and president of the board at Building Pathways.


Eight tradeswomen, all moms, told Marni Elyse Katz about their journeys:


Colleen Donnellan

I grew up in a divorced family with eight kids. My mother was on welfare. I didn’t want to end up like that. In ninth grade, I decided to go into sheet metal like my father. When I first started, the guys stared — half hostile, half curious. One accused me of taking his brother-in-law’s spot. I’m proud to say I bought a house when I was 25 and still live there today. I started in ductwork, then did cornice work, and then learned air balancing. Now the guys look up to me. I worked until I was eight months’ pregnant. My boss is one of the best you’ll find. He lets me come in at 8:15 so I can take my daughter to school. I’d love to see more women join the trades. I’ve suggested it to my girlfriends instead of waitressing, but nobody’s interested.


Tabia Gustave

Tabia Gustave, who works in elevator and escalator construction, with her children: Chaliss, 10, and Carter, 6.Tabia Gustave

Four years ago I was an unemployed mom. Now I’m a first-year apprentice and alumna of the Building Pathways program. Lots of different skills are required in this trade — welding, wiring, flooring. There aren’t many people who can say they know how to build an elevator. My first job was the Fenway Target building. I like that I am leaving behind a legacy. My kids (daughter Chaliss, 10, and son Carter, 6) think it’s the coolest thing that I built those elevators and escalators. My mother doesn’t understand why I didn’t become a nurse. The men on the jobs aren’t always accustomed to working with women, but my experience has been positive and they want me to succeed. Women do belong in the trades. We’re stronger than people think.



Jenaya Pina-Nelson

Jenaya Pina-Nelson works in construction and has four children: Leon Dorsainvil-Cave, 21, Jenasia Nelson, 13, Fantasia Nelson, 8, and Francis Nelson, 8.Jenaya Pina-Nelson/handout

I was 21, between jobs, and trying to go to school when I saw a brochure about a pre-apprenticeship program. It seemed crazy that they would pay and train me. My son was 3 when I graduated. A female carpenter and I helped each other with child care. That was the hardest part. I was married when I had my other kids, but now I’m divorced, so it’s back to square one. I overwork because I feel like I have to prove myself; the guys tell me to take it easy. This type of job might be good for my 13-year-old. My 8-year-old is kind of prissy, though my mother thought that about me. I had the long nails and was cheerleading captain. She still thinks I should be doing hair. I’ve been in the industry 18 years.


Tyiesha Thompson

I was always interested in construction, so when I saw a flier for the Building Pathways program, I applied. The insulation presentation intrigued me; they said it was like arts and crafts for adults. I have a knife, scissors, paint, tape, among other tools. It’s important to show you’re part of the team, so I take my coffee break with my foreman. [Recently] I saw three women carpenters, a woman electrician, and two women pipefitters on one job site. I was like, “Wow!” I have to be at the job site very early, so my 13-year-old son puts my 5-year-old son on the bus before he goes to school. My eldest son is in college; he wants to be a pharmacist. I go home a little tired, but I feel good. I am a fourth-year apprentice and will become a journeywoman in December.



Amenyonah Bossman

Amenyonah Bossman, a carpenter, says women bring balance to the job site.Ellen Webber/NERCC/handout

When I was 13, I went to work with my stepdad, who was a contractor. I found my calling, and he never took my brothers again. I graduated high school with a building-construction certificate and made my way into the union. I was pregnant when I worked on the Big Dig, with a belly under my overalls, then took time off to focus on motherhood. I went back when my youngest was 2. Their dad did the night shift so he could help in the mornings. I took evening classes at Wentworth in construction management while working as an apprentice carpenter. I’d bring my book bag to work and study during breaks. As an apprentice carpenter I was promoted to foreman and supervised a crew. At the time I was the youngest and greenest foreman on the job, but I earned the respect from the journeymen carpenter foreman. Women bring balance to the job site.


Kerri Sheehan

Glazier Kerri Sheehan has two children: Rebel Rose, 5 months, and Jacob, 8.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

I got my real estate license in 2008, which was bad timing. A friend who is an ironworker suggested the glaziers union. I didn’t even know what that was. Now I hang off the sides of skyscrapers, putting in glass, and I do interior finish work. Am I scared of heights? No, I respect them. I was the first girl apprentice my teacher taught, so I felt like I had to perform. Guys on the crew are apprehensive at first — I’m petite and they don’t know what to expect — but not in a negative way. I love telling people I’m in construction. I’m the first woman to hold an elected office in my local; I’m paving the way for other women. I would be proud if my daughter wanted to follow in my footsteps. She’s just 5 months old, but her name is Rebel, so I’m sure she’ll do something out of the norm.


Kelly Battles

I had just had my youngest when I brought my brother-in-law to the ironworkers union to learn about apprenticeships. I put the baby carrier down on the business agent’s desk — you can imagine his face. It turned out that I was the interested one. The first year was really hard. My fiancé’s mother helped with the baby, and my mother came at 4 a.m. and brought the older two to school. I was still breast-feeding and got mastitis four times. Imagine telling these burly ironworkers you need to take a break to pump. They look intimidating, but they’re giant marshmallows. I’m pretty much the only female ironworker in Western Massachusetts. There’s a girl in the apprenticeship program now. I watched her daughter when she had to go away for her weeklong training session. I’m hoping she makes it. It’s not easy, but once you finish, it’s like coming into this big family. I’m at a point where I can support my family and have a retirement and will have a pension. It will by my three-year anniversary as a journeywoman in June .


Deb Gilcoine

Deb Gilcoine is a painter for the MBTA.Deb Gilcoine

I was one of five girls in my trade school. I wanted be an auto mechanic, but the teacher said: “I’m not letting you in my class. Why don’t you go to the paint shop where the other girls are?” I poked his chest with my finger and said that was discrimination, but I listened and did the painting program. After graduation, I ran into an old teacher who told me to get myself into the painters union. (I was working at a nursing home.) He changed my life. I was the first female union painter in Boston. I was painting Lechmere Station the day I delivered my first daughter. That was 36 years ago. They were proud to have a pregnant painter. My second daughter, Mary, just applied to the electricians union. I was in the construction field for nine years before I went to work for the MBTA as a painter. I worked my way up to a superintendent’s job.

Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at Send comments to