PULLING WIRE FOR TEMPORARY LIGHTS, electrician Shara Noldseiro moves quickly, gloved hands in near constant motion. Her petite frame, draped in a neon-yellow hoodie, is dwarfed by the steel-beam skeleton of a luxury condo complex taking shape near North Station. The 36-year-old Noldseiro first took an interest in construction when she was in her early 20s but was too intimidated by the prospect of finding a job on her own. Instead, she worked days as a meter maid, nights as a caretaker at a homeless shelter, and weekends as a tattoo artist. Only after she was laid off from her job at the homeless shelter three years ago did she decide to give the building trades a serious look.
Noldseiro, now a second-year apprentice electrician, reflects the growing presence — at long last — of female construction workers on job sites around Massachusetts. That’s been an industry goal since 1978, when President Carter issued an amended executive order to increase the percentage of work hours for women on construction projects receiving federal funds. His timetable: Women would hold 6.9 percent of work hours within four years. But there was no effective enforcement mechanism, and for nearly three decades, no place in the country came close to hitting that goal in any sustained way. The national average continues to hover in the 2 percent to 3 percent range. Finally, though, things are changing in this area.
These days, when it comes to employing women in the trades, Massachusetts is among the leaders, according to Susan Moir, director of research for UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center. (At the city level, not enough good data exist to make comparisons between Boston and other major metros around the country.)
In 2015, tradeswomen filled nearly 6.3 percent of apprentice positions in Massachusetts — up from 4.2 percent in 2012. Women also accounted for 5 percent of construction work hours in Boston in 2015, and they saw a tenfold increase in work hours from 2010 to 2015 for projects covered by the Boston Residents Job Policy. Moir says the rising number of female electricians, plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, insulators, and sheet-metal workers on jobs here — many of them women of color — shows “there’s something special about what’s going on in Boston and Massachusetts.”
It didn’t happen by accident. Instead, it’s the direct result of an effort hatched eight years ago by a group of local women with deep ties to the construction industry. Frustrated by the slow pace, they decided to change the composition of Massachusetts construction by working from the inside.
Moir, who in her own life had gone from aspiring sheet-metal worker to bus driver to academic, worked with Elizabeth Skidmore, a carpenter-turned-union representative, to found the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues, or PGTI, in 2008. To “get smarter about diversity,” Moir says, “we needed to get the right people in the room to change the numbers.” PGTI has grown to include more than 75 women (and a few men) who represent local construction companies, trade unions, community-based organizations, educational institutions, building-project owners, and government agencies.
“PGTI is helping because they’ve been persistent,” says Noldseiro. “They’re persistent and they’re passionate. They’re saying, ‘Women deserve these opportunities,’ and not backing down.”
The group’s leaders are particularly determined to increase the representation of low-income women of color because a career in the trades for them can be life-changing. For women without college degrees, few careers offer better wages and benefits. Construction workers in Boston earn, on average, $63,000 per year, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is a whole lot better than a minimum-wage job in fast food. Yet it’s a career that women rarely consider for themselves or their daughters.
At a recent PGTI meeting at the New England Carpenters Training Center in Dorchester, Moir surveys the third-floor conference room, pointing out female construction leaders from the local trade unions, owners like MGM Springfield, and construction heavyweights like Turner, Suffolk, Walsh Brothers, and Gilbane. The entities represented in the room, particularly through the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and the UMass Building Authority, collectively oversee almost $3 billion of construction work. As Moir puts it, “It takes a lot of the right people.”
Their approach to moving the diversity meter has been to identify companies willing to be early adopters and encourage them to lead. “You have to get in front of it,” says Danielle Skilling, community affairs specialist with Gilbane. “You can’t wait until there’s workers on-site and start talking about diversity. If you wait until the crew’s there, then you’ve lost the battle.”
The discussion in the carpenters hall bounces from problematic subcontractors to entrenched sexist attitudes to the paucity of women’s portable toilets on work sites. The women flip back and forth between complaints and progress reports, between exasperation with men in the industry who “still don’t get it” to optimism about the future.
“The wall that I hit the most is that subcontractors come to jobs and they have core crews,” says Linda Shaughnessy, compliance officer for Walsh Brothers. “They’re not in compliance before they get to the job site. To me, that’s insanity. Why do they even get the job?” True to the culture of this group, though, the complaint quickly turns solution-minded. Shaughnessy suggests the group provide rosters to subcontractors, saying, “Here are the females we can bring to you.’”
Moir recounts a recent conversation she had with a male instructor. Talking about his job site, he told her: “We got some girls. We got some minorities. And we got some regular people.” The women around the table get a good laugh, but they know it captures the serious obstacles that remain in their path. Forty-year-old Jenaya Pina-Nelson, who went from welfare mom to laborer 18 years ago, says older men routinely take over tasks she’s been assigned, worried she won’t be able to get the job done. Noldseiro mentions that only one male co-worker has demonstrated genuine interest in mentoring her and making her a better electrician. Here again, though, the women’s problem-solving tendencies kick in, since PGTI offers tradeswomen structured support along what can be a lonely career path.
Shamaiah Turner, who’s worked in the sheet-metal trade for five years, admits she’s had moments where she’s told herself, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But because of PGTI’s support system, “I’m able to speak up for myself, and that makes a huge difference.” The group, the 30-year-old says, laid the groundwork for tradeswomen like her. “Now we have to lay the groundwork for the other people, show the men what they should expect of women.”
Seven years after Jimmy Carter issued his executive order with the goal of 6.9 percent work hours for women, Boston approved an ordinance setting a goal of 10 percent for local projects. Although a few have met that mark in the intervening decades, the vast majority have not. Still, Boston’s gains in recent years have made activists hopeful that they’re on their way.
Mark Erlich, who leads the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, says those recent gains wouldn’t have been possible without the dogged direction of the women behind the “transformative” group. PGTI hopes that, by 2020, women will account for 20 percent of workers in the trades in Massachusetts.
It’s an incredibly ambitious goal, but there are already promising signs. Newer tradeswomen like Noldseiro, Pina-Nelson, and Turner are becoming role models for high school girls interested in a career in construction. Skidmore says the percentage of females in many of the local trades programs now exceeds the percentage of women in that trade, “which tells me the pipeline bringing new, qualified young women into the apprenticeships is expanding.”
Had that kind of mentoring by female construction workers been available 15 years ago, Noldseiro would probably have had the confidence to go directly into the trades. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity I got because of PGTI,” she says, “and I feel like it’s my duty to give back whatever way I can.”