Planting construction-trade seeds

The mega projects are here, and there are more on the way. Sound Transit's Light Rail is rolling up the Rainier Valley, the Monorail expansion has a voter-approved green light, and, on the horizon, funding is being sought for transforming the decaying S.R.-99 waterfront viaduct into a subterranean tunnel below an open waterfront. With such major industrial public developments in various stages of construction and planning, the outlook for the Puget Sound's trade unions appears excellent, especially in the Emerald City's South End.

However, creating a labor base that looks like the Southeast Seattle neighborhoods these projects will directly affect has proven more challenging than one might think, most notably when it comes to bringing women into the trades. For this reason, a group of four trade union representatives spoke to a group assembly of Franklin High School's construction class students on Wednesday, March 30. More than 60 students listened to four union members in various stages of their careers discuss the high pay and good benefits that come with a union apprenticeship and the resulting journeyman's position.

While the focus was on trade recruitment in general, the union representatives specifically discussed the opportunities for ethnic minorities and women, pointing out the upcoming 26 Annual Women in Trades Fair at the Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion on Friday, April 15.

"There are not too many job categories for women that pay full family medical. The trades do," asserted Carol O'Neil, community outreach representative for Washington Women in Trades. "There are great opportunities for everybody, and really for females, too."

O'Neil belongs to Sprinkler Fitters Local 699, a union which pays its journeyed workers (those who have completed the training program, which ranges from three to five years in the trades) $35 an hour. If a year is worked without being laid off, that's more than $70,000, and O'Neil notes her members also receive $7.60 an hour for pension and full-family medical benefits on top of the good wage.

"There is less than 3 percent women, nationally, in the construction trades," O'Neil noted.

Fellow Washington Women in Trades member and union carpenter Evelyn O'Conner added that this percentage has remained steady over the last 20 years.

When the group was asked, after the presentation, whether or not the high school students they regularly speak to become excited by the opportunities their unions offer, they all agreed that the response is lackluster at best.

"In a group presentation like this I'll get three or four phone calls the next week, and then they'll ask the questions they're too embarrassed to ask you [in person]," said Lee Newgent, a Mount Baker resident and member of Iron Workers Local 86 who has been in his trade, traveling the world, for more than 20 years. "So that's the big thing with high school, and we know that going in."

According to O'Neil, Newgent's observation cuts closer to the truth than many people would think, especially considering the security promised by a trade union job.

"A lot of times we're finding it takes the folks until they're 25-years-old, maybe flipping burgers or in some other dead-end job, to think, 'I need a life skill,'" O'Neil said. "So that's when they come back around and realize they need a trade, and that's when they come in, and they're ready to go."

Regular recruiting efforts, such as the Franklin High presentation and the upcoming trade job fair for women, are striving to shorten this gap. However, according to all four presenters, the trades are looked down on as a job choice, especially when compared to the ubiquitous four-year college programs peppering the United States.

"It's dirty, dangerous work, and people look down on it," O'Conner said.

This attitude seems to be perpetuated by a poor representation of the unions at high school job fairs in the area.

"With Women in Trades, I'm going out to a lot of the high schools so I see a lot of the [career] presentations to the parents," asserted O'Neil. "I would say, almost 100 percent, that there is not one word regarding the construction trades mentioned. Zero. During the career nights, the college nights, it's virtually 98 percent that they do not mention the trades as a [career] path."

If students can surmount this lack of career consideration time given to the trades, then the local opportunities available to them open up. With the mega-projects scheduled for the area, a large amount of money has been invested in area pre-apprenticeship programs ($2 million for Sound Transit's Light Rail alone) that are designed to help young, and not so young, people ready themselves for garnering an apprentice position.

"Preappreticeship is providing people with the resources, mentor, and case support," stated Denise Salo, project labor agreement expert and field monitor for Sound Transit's Light Rail project. Salo is also a union electrician who entered the trade at age 36, after receiving her bachelor's degree in industrial technology and a masters degree in human resources and then finding herself struggling financially.

[The preapprenticeships give] all of those things that help a person overcome the obstacles that they've created in their life and then allows them to be able to show up to work."

Want to find out more about preappreticeship programs targeting Puget Sound's construction trades? Contact the following folks:

Bob Markholt of the Seattle Vocational Institute's building trades program - 206-587-4974

Joanna Dugger of South Seattle Community College's ANEW program.

Look up or call the following for more information about the April 15 Women in Trades job fair:


Curious about the area's current union wage rates? Visit the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries website:[[In-content Ad]]