Women are changing the game in construction careers

    Women have come a long way in proving themselves equal — and even superior — to men in a number of professions historically reserved for men, yet for most people, the ideas of a woman donning the hard hat or swinging the sledge hammer fall in the “don’t be absurd” category.

    Women have come a long way in proving themselves equal — and even superior — to men in a number of professions historically reserved for men. Today, you’ll see female leaders in the corporate, financial, medical, science, and technology arenas. But construction is one industry where it still seems to be shocking to see a woman excel. For some reason, for most people, the ideas of a woman donning the hard hat, swinging the sledge hammer, or solving that delicate yet dangerous wiring situation fall in the “don’t be absurd” category.

    Fortunately, society is coming around to, and seeing the value of, women in construction. Women have a unique point of view, passion, and attention to detail. And they are capable of everything from wall demolition to detailed spackling to diagnosing complex problems and making necessary repairs.

    As the acceptance increases, so do the opportunities for women in construction, as well as the appeal of a dependable career with huge growth potential, from apprenticeships to owning a construction business. While not developed exclusively for women, the trade program at JEVS Human ServicesOrleans Technical College in Philadelphia has seen continuous growth in female enrollment. And the instructors as well as the students take great pride in being a driving force behind changing the game for women in construction.

    For Women in Construction Week, a few women from Orleans Tech share their experiences here.

    Linda Dunphy, instructor, Orleans Tech

    I can personally attest to the power of a woman taking charge and following her heart. At age 49, I found myself having to reverse roles in my marriage because my husband was facing health issues and could no longer be the primary financial provider. I knew I needed to earn a man’s pay, and my current factory job simply wasn’t going to cut it. Plus, for a few years I was watching more and more jobs like mine go overseas, making my personal situation even more difficult.

    From the time I was quite young, I began working with my hands … stripping cars, building engines and other parts … and I was good at it, quite good. Moreover, I enjoyed it. So, I looked around and landed at Orleans Technical College, and enrolled in their building trade program. It probably seems strange, but in that program, at nearly 50 years young, I began to blossom!

    After graduation, I worked for an apartment complex in the Northeast where I gained a ton of experience in a variety of jobs, but then I bumped into the principal of Orleans Tech. He pushed, and I headed back to the classroom, this time as a building maintenance instructor. I’ve been teaching for about 16 years, and I love the opportunities I have to support women pursuing their dreams in a “man’s” industry. Because building maintenance includes so many disciplines — ranging from carpentry and electric to heating and A/C — right off the bat I can nurture women not to feel limited, but to explore and choose.

    My female students also drive my male students to strive harder — believe me, no man wants to be out done by “a girl” in this line of work, but it happens in my classroom! Finally, I see a lot of women like me, changing paths long after society expects them to be settled in life — as well as younger women trying to muster the courage to pursue a “man’s” career.

    Alison Battestelli, graduate

    I was 33 years old, married, a new mom, and living with my in-laws. After a very bad car accident, my husband was limited in his ability to work, and with my salary in retail, we could barely make ends meet. I’m very grateful to his parents for keeping a roof over our heads, but, I admit, my sense of self-worth was in the cellar, and I struggled with depression. Who wouldn’t, in my place?

    However, when my daughter was a few months old, she gave me purpose and inspired me to start believing in myself again. I wanted more for all of us … a place that we could call our home, a greater sense of independence, something that would take us places instead of that feeling that we’d be stuck in this “dead-end” situation forever. With my husband’s disabilities, I knew I had to be the catalyst for all of this.

    My job at the time didn’t offer opportunities for me to grow, and I’d always admired my own father, an electrical engineer in the Navy. He took such pride in his job, and I, too, considered it the most prestigious of careers. It didn’t matter to him one bit that I was a girl; he brought me into his world of engineering and mechanics very early on.

    I began to think that I could use this passion and ability. My Orleans Tech education has allowed me to use my brain and think critically, while I also used my hands and my skills to be truly productive. It wasn’t long before I did prove that, as a woman, I wasn’t afraid to do the hard and sometimes dangerous work, and that I could stack up to any man in this male-dominated industry. My confidence grew, along with my appeal to potential employers. Now I am employed with a company in Montgomery County doing substation maintenance and high voltage work, and I couldn’t be happier.

    Catherine Pearce-Sponburgh, graduate

    I should start out saying that being laid off from my job at age 45 was devastating. But honestly, I’m not so sure. Yes, it was tough, upsetting, a little depressing. However, I’d spent most of my working life either working for a cleaning business, or doing administrative work for physicians’ offices. I was unfulfilled, and getting laid off was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it gave me that push I needed to get into the career that was right for me.

    I can’t say I was consciously thinking about a job in construction. In fact, I actually was looking into Orleans Tech for my son, who had a friend in their HVAC program. But at some point everything just clicked. As I read up on the school, more and more I felt old stirrings, my life-long enjoyment of working with my hands began to emerge. I thought about all the things I do around the house — fixing toilets and water heaters, and even my occasional car maintenance — and thought, “Why not make a new career out of this?”

    I admit, it wasn’t easy. This was the big plunge of my life, and at 45 doing a complete 180 on my career, going back to school — yes, it was scary. But it was also exhilarating. I made this my goal and I never looked back. Instead of my son, I began carpooling with his friend to school. I gained life-long lessons beyond what would make me employable. I’ve since graduated and have already been hired by a major hotel chain. My son now has a job too, but he’s seriously considering following in my footsteps.

    Sabrina Brinkley, student

    I’m not sure too many parents expect their 27-year-old daughter to be on the career path of a carpenter, but here I am! I went to high school at Swenson Arts and Technology, but when I graduated it was hard to tell what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I trained to be an EMT, but after working for a year, I just wasn’t feeling it. And in that line of work, if it’s not for you, you shouldn’t be in it.

    While working at Sam’s Club I met a student enrolled at Orleans Tech. We got to talking about the school and his experience. I remembered a summer at Swenson when we, the students, helped build a few classrooms. I really enjoyed that; it was amazing to be so productive and to have something to show at the end of a good day’s work.

    So, I enrolled at Orleans Tech. My ultimate goal is to get some land of my own and build my house! I have the skills and the confidence to do it, too. I’m also thinking about buying fixer-uppers to resell. I really think I can establish myself as a go-to person for home repair and remodeling. Plus, I think being a woman may actually make me preferred over a guy!

    To any woman out there wondering if this or any other traditionally male career is for you, I say, go for it. I’ve learned that women can do as much as men, if not more in some cases. Sure, you’ll always have the handful of male egos who doubt you, but for the most part, I’ve found men respect me for following my dreams, working hard, and not letting anything stand in my way.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal