By Judy Bass
Fourteen female students from Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton joined more than 350 students and 50 educators from 22 high schools throughout Eastern Massachusetts on March 2 at the Second Annual Massachusetts Girls in Trades Conference and Career Fair held at the headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103 in Dorchester.
Judging from the Blue Hills girls' enthusiastic reactions, they savored the experience and found it very worthwhile. Among their laudatory comments were remarks like "super helpful," "really cool and inspiring," and "It opened up my eyes to all the work a woman can do."
The Blue Hills contingent was led by Guidance Counselor Sarah Titus, who is also the advisor of the school's Non-Traditional Careers Club, and Construction Technology Lead Teacher / SkillsUSA Blue Hills Chapter Advisor Robert Foley. The students, from grades 9 through 12, included Anya Arcuri (Construction), Lillian Blasé (Electrical), D'Laijha Cameron-Miller (Metal Fabrication), Jessica Campbell (Metal Fabrication), Juliandra Castillo (Drafting / CAD), Abigail DeRossette (Electrical), Mia Dixon (Construction), Honestie Headley (Metal Fabrication), Abigail Jean-Baptiste (Electrical), Madelyn Oteri (Criminal Justice), Brianna Sarofeen (Construction), Jalissa Soto (Electrical), Penny Sullivan (Metal Fabrication) and Zahria Woodruffe (Construction).
The objective of the event was to give female students who are interested in becoming professionals in skilled trades such as carpentry, welding and plumbing some useful information on potential career paths, apprenticeships and training opportunities, as well as providing a much-needed sense of common purpose and unity. Women have traditionally been significantly under-represented in numerous primarily male fields associated with construction, so for them, just getting a foothold in the industry can be a daunting challenge.
That's where Massachusetts Girls in Trades comes in. Established in December 2015 to encourage young women to enter the construction trades, its board includes representatives from community organizations, developers, contractors, government, building trade unions, apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, as well as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, student organizations, and career and technical schools.
Local 103 was bustling with activity even before the program officially got underway. In the Union Hall, booths staffed by dozens of exhibitors and vendors crowded the floor – Wentworth Institute of Technology, Massachusetts AFL-CIO, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, Turner Construction, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Suffolk Construction, New England Carpenters Training Fund, Gilbane Building Co., Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp., and many more. The attendees were given ample time to stroll around, speak to experts, gather information and absorb a wealth of valuable pointers about their future professions.
Kicking off the morning were remarks to the audience from speakers including Michelle Roche, Career and Technical Education Director at Minuteman High School; Brian Doherty, General Agent, Building and Construction Trades Council, Metropolitan District; and Twanya Lawson, journeyperson, Operating Engineers Local 4, J. Derenzo Co., a general contractor based in Brockton. (A speech by Tonye Hayden-Berry, journeyperson, Bricklayers Local 3, closed the event.)
Ms. Lawson's address was especially powerful. She exhorted the girls to "believe in yourselves; put safety first; do the best you can do; have a positive attitude; never let people intimidate you; and be proud."
Another phase of the event took place at the Training Center across the parking lot. There, two workshops, one geared to educators and one aimed at students, took place: for educators, "What, How and Why Registered Apprenticeships?," presented by Maura Russell of the Office for College, Career & Technical Education at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Executive Director of Building Pathways Mary Vogel, and for students, "Becoming a Union Tradeswoman," moderated by Liz Skidmore, New England Regional Council of Carpenters Business Rep / Organizer and Policy Group on Tradeswomen's Issues. At the latter, issues were discussed such as unions, wages, apprenticeships and equal pay for women in union construction jobs.
It seemed as though the Blue Hills girls left Dorchester feeling more knowledgeable, focused and really fired-up about their professional goals, which suddenly felt attainable to them. Providing information that people were generally not aware of was also a key benefit of the conference.
Said Mrs. Titus, the guidance counselor, "This conference was a real eye-opener for me and the students. I was impressed by the college credits earned while you are an apprentice and the significant benefits and pensions offered by the unions. The students were impressed by the fact that in the four years after high school, they could earn money instead of spending it on college loans, to make $40 an hour, have an associate's degree and be employed! Personally meeting women who have followed this career path and hearing their stories drove home the point that doors are open and hard work really pays off."
One of the Blue Hills students, Penny Sullivan, said, "I thought the conference was really interesting and really helped me learn more about unions and different trades to go into that relate to my technical program. I learned about the different benefits each union provides with membership and what kinds of jobs they work on. I'm in Metal Fabrication and Joining Technologies and I'm looking into Sheet Metalworking (Local 17) and Pipefitters (Local 537). I did feel inspired by some of the women who talked about how they started out in the industry. I'll definitely be looking into some of these unions in my senior year.
Another Blue Hills student, Abigail DeRossette, expressed her opinion: "I thought it was super helpful, I know a ton more about unions and apprenticeships. All the information will help me think about what I want to do after high school. I learned that only 4 out of 10 college graduates make more money than union construction workers, and that unions provide protection and great health insurance. I'm interested in being a vet for large cats, bears, and giant pandas or doing something in the electrical field (still deciding). I loved the messages that a lot of the speakers got across."
Perhaps student Juliandra Castillo summed the day up most succinctly: "I very much feel inspired because it's confirming that I can actually reach some of my goals in life."