Thursday, April 2, 2009

State is seeking the modern Rosie the Riveter

By Susan Abram, Staff Writer
Updated: 03/15/2009 08:11:11 PM PDT

BEVERLY HILLS - Martha Hernandez builds her future with cement and stone, nails and drill bits, lumber and steel.

Today, she is doing finishing work on French doors at the tony Beverly Hills Montage hotel. Someday, she will make homes and construct skyscrapers.

"I remember looking at buildings and saying, `I want to build that one day," said Hernandez, a 29-year-old Reseda resident and first-year carpenter's apprentice. "This is the only kind of work I love."

That's the sentiment state officials want to hear more of, especially now, as the average age of California's construction worker hits 47.

Retirements of existing workers loom just as federal stimulus money to repair the state's roads and highways, levies and dams, schools and government buildings, becomes available in the next few years.

That means the supply of carpenters, iron workers, equipment operators and masons won't meet the demand unless 200,000 apprentices are in the pipeline.

So a state campaign called has aimed its message at mothers, daughters and sisters, hoping to boost the 4 percent share women now have in California construction.

World War II gave the nation Rosie the Riveter. So why, some ask, can't the 21st century have Bridget the Bridge Builder?

"We wanted to target women because the building construction trade is a viable career," said Renee Bacchini, assistant to the chief at the Division of Apprenticeship Standards in the Department of Industrial Relations.

Bacchini produced a gender neutral television commercial last year that first aired in Fresno, but has been spotted recently on Los Angeles stations. The commercial features women of varying ages and races, affirming their decision to enter the construction field.

While some public works funds have been suspended and work stoppages have impacted apprenticeship programs, Bacchini said it's a good time for women to get into training programs. The paycheck is pretty good, she said. An apprentice earns about 50 percent - anywhere from $12 to $20 an hour - of what a journeyman's wages are.

But the challenge isn't just luring women into apprenticeship programs. It's keeping them there.

From January 1999 to January 2009, the number of women in construction increased just 11 percent nationally, according to figures by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That relatively small increase, some say, is due in part to harassment on the job or male supervisors who remain skeptical about hiring women. Finding child care also remains tough. Workers who have to be at sites at 5 or 6 a.m. often can't find places that accept their sons or daughters.

"When Rosie the Riveter came in, she was needed so badly. There were no men to push her out," said Kristyan Kouri, a professor of sociology, gender and women's studies at California State University, Northridge.

Kouri said some men think of their jobs as a "men's only" club much like fraternities or sports teams. As a result, they may become angry when women enter their "male sphere" and attempt to force them out.

"Many men have been taught all of their life to believe that they are innately more suited than women to work in fields like construction," Kouri said. "Seeing a woman who can do the job just as well as they can may be very threatening to their masculinity.

"Even though we've come forward in the last 40 years, we still have those sexist beliefs," she said. "Men may love a woman as a wife and sex partner, but they don't want them wherever they go."

That perception needs to change - and fast, said Pat McGinn, director for the Southwest Carpenters Training Fund.

"I believe we are approaching a crisis among the trades," McGinn said. "We have ignored the other half of the labor force, and I don't think we can afford to ignore them any longer."

McGinn said even though the employment sector has sputtered, there won't be enough apprentices once the economy stabilizes.

He agreed that society's perception of "women's work" is partly to blame.

"Among those women that come in, very few make it through the apprenticeship," McGinn said. "Given the choice, a man will hire a man over the woman. You've got co-workers who believe women don't belong there. It's still part of our culture."

That's why he and creators of the campaign plan to take their messages into the schools.

"It's a little bit unrealistic to devalue some of our most precious jobs that include doing work with your hands and getting dirty," Bacchini said. "It's not just going to work with a tool belt. You have the opportunity to own your own business, go up to foreman or superintendent."

In recent years, more women are being seen on home improvement television programs, but enrollment in classes continues to dwindle, said Jamie Robison an educational services coordinator for the Southwestern Carpenters Training Fund. Robison, who worked her way up as an apprentice to go on into millwright work as a supervisor, said Los Angeles' first construction expo in May will feature many women who own businesses.

Meanwhile, there are still women like Hernandez, who said she just wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. He worked construction, everything from framing and remodeling, to installing tiles and brick laying.

"I used to say, Come on, Papi, take me with you," Hernandez said. He refused until her mother persuaded him otherwise.

Hernandez said she once quit the work she loves so much because of harassment by male co-workers. But she joined the Carpenters Union Local 209 in Sylmar and returned to job sites, tool box in hand.

Not all the guys are receptive, she said, but she doesn't pay attention to negativity.

"I don't know what they think about me," she said, as she continued sanding one of the elaborate doors of the ritzy hotel.

Co-worker Rafael Ramirez said some of the men are learning to accept women at sites, but it's a slow process.

"Some guys are afraid she's going to take their job away," he said. "I say if she has the capacity, why not?"

Hernandez said carpentry is how she expresses herself.

"It's hard out there," she said. "But I'm not afraid of anything. This work puts food on the table."


tammy said...

I was a Rosie the riveter last year, I could huff more steel then 20 year old guys. however, as sad as it is I was brought down buy the steel I was welding. I was building recycle conveyors when a guy I worked with knocked over a leg assembly. 2000 lbs of it landed on my back and under the weight my leg broke. I have not been able to work all this year. I was Rosie

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