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McEntee: Women find good living in construction trades

Published February 24, 2011 8:31 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Katie Leslie got into a sheet metal fabrication program at an Ogden applied technology college because the waiting list for cosmetology courses was too long.

Yesenia Burquez was making $2.50 an hour waiting tables, with scant tips, and trying to care for her two kids when she decided that finding a trade would be a much better idea.

These days, Leslie is a project estimator and Burquez is a journeyman laborer and flagger working on the new FrontRunner line from Salt Lake to Provo.



Both are a part of a growing number of women going into the construction trades, where jobs range from cement masonry and bricklaying to ironwork, plumbing, pipefitting and welding.

All this was revealed to me last fall, when I first heard the words: "A man is not a financial plan."

I was a guest, along with Sen. Karen Mayne and victim's advocate Kendra Wycoff, at a women's studies class at Salt Lake Community College.

Mary Jane Davis' class was full of women with a variety of interests and needs. Many were going to school to find a way to support themselves and their kids in hard economic times and often after divorce.

Mayne, a lifelong labor supporter, had joined in with the AFL-CIO of Utah and others in establishing Utah Women in Trades.

"I always wanted my daughter to be an electrician," she told me dryly. "She's an accountant."

Last week, Mayne hosted a Utah Senate reception for tradeswomen such as Leslie and Burquez, along with other women who have transcended meager pay and lousy working conditions by getting well-paying union jobs.

Leslie, 26, says she was a little at loose ends when she checked out the Ogden-Weber ATC. She wasn't interested in nursing or computers, but she had friends in the electrical program, and her dad's a welder who let her mess around in his shop.

Getting into the sheet metal program "came naturally to me," she said. "It was the first time I'd gone into something and excelled."

So much so that for three years, she took three first places in a contest sponsored by SkillsUSA, a national organization for students seeking careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations.

As Leslie was working through her apprenticeship in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, she heard about an estimator job at Mechanical Service & Systems, Inc., of Midvale, and since has working on projects ranging from the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium, Ogden's Salomon Center and projects at the University of Utah.

It's a male-dominated work force, but Leslie says she holds her own.

"Some guys are not very nice, but most are very accepting," she said. "I knew what I was doing."

These days, she's considering moving into project management. She does all right financially now, but there's the potential for even more money and job satisfaction.

Likewise with Burquez, the former waitress who sometimes earned only a couple of bucks in tips a day. A single mom at 29, she's making full-scale pay and can support her kids.

"I really like this rail work, it's really awesome," Burquez said. "You have to build the grade, set the track, build walls for the sound. There's just so much."

And like Leslie, she dreams of becoming a boss, maybe a construction site superintendent.

For the record, I know a little about hard physical work. In college student, I worked as a house painter for a couple of years — a skill, if not a trade, that I still rely on around the house.

There's nothing quite like doing a good job, attending to the details, and going home tired and paint-spattered but maybe a little proud.

As for Karen Mayne, she's been an activist on behalf of working people since she picketed a grocery store for its high beef prices many years ago. Recently she was at a job fair in Seattle and met some of the original "Rosie the Riveters," tough young women who helped build armaments during World War II. They're still tough, Mayne said, and proud of what they did.

Mayne has a dream: "That a son will tell his father he wants to be a nurse, and the father says, 'That's an honorable profession.' And when his daughter tells him she wants to be an electrician, he says, 'That's an honorable profession.' "

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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