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Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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Building a future for women in construction industry

When Kayla Gorman moved to Florida last year, she took a retail job for minimum wage. With no real training for a particular profession, the 25-year-old realized quickly she needed something more.

A new program that highlights skilled construction trades is turning her struggle around. At a time when the construction industry in Florida is growing again and struggling mightily to find skilled tradespeople, the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women is working to fill that gap and at the same time open new career opportunities for women like Gorman.

The second round of seminars for Women Building Futures, a program that gives women a sneak peek at carpentry, plumbing, painting, flooring installation and construction drawings, begins this week. Once they’ve finished that program, if they decide to take advantage of an apprenticeship, women can become certified in any number of trades that could boost their income considerably — at very little cost to them.

Gorman, who already completed the Women Building Futures training, has taken a job with the women’s center’s Senior Home Improvement Program repairing homes for low-income seniors and is looking toward signing up for an apprenticeship that would put her in the workforce as a carpenter, or maybe an electrician.

“Why would you not want to?” Gorman said. “You can just delve into it, work with your hands and make a lot better money.”

Doreen DiPolito, the owner of D-Mar General Contracting and Development Inc., has been down that path and highly recommends it. She purchased her company from her daughter’s grandparents in 2005, specializing in commercial and high-end custom residential construction. She is now a licensed general contractor.

In 2006, DiPolito, a Clearwater City Council member, won Medium Business of the Year from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a great industry and a great income and we need to break the ceiling on it,” DiPolito said. “It still happens. And women are good multitaskers.

“There is absolutely a 110 percent shortage in trained tradespeople in Florida,” DiPolito said, “and so much (construction) is coming.”

It’s perfect timing for women to break into new occupations, she said.

When the great recession hit, many in the trades had to find new jobs, said MacAdam Glinn, senior vice president for Skanska USA, one of the lead contractors on the Tampa International Airport renovation and expansion project. Others are aging out. And young people who might have gotten into the trades decided not to after living through the economic downturn, he said.

Glinn said Skanska applauds programs like Women Building Futures.

“We’ve had this one-two punch with skilled labor during the downturn. The government is taking note of this problem, and the state has given out about $10 million in the past year in federal grants to colleges that can equip students to become skilled craftsmen,” he said.

Jobs in construction tend to be cyclical, and Florida’s construction is on the upswing as the economy here continues to rebound. Anyone who happens to be a carpenter or welder or steelworker is in high demand right now.

Skanska started its own training program for unskilled labor to get enough talent for its work on the “I-4 Ultimate” rebuild of Interstate 4 in Orlando.

And most of the local unions have their own apprenticeship programs. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 915 is among them.

“There is a massive skilled worker shortage,” said Randall King, the union’s business manager. “It’s all over Florida, and it’s electricians, plumbers, sheet metal mechanics. Our apprenticeship is a five-year program where students work and learn. It costs students zero. We tax ourselves under our collective bargaining agreement” to pay to train new electricians, he said.

Associated Builders and Contractors, working with Hillsborough Community College, is offering apprenticeships in carpentry, electricity, HVAC, plumbing, sheet metal work and sprinkler fitting. Contractors hire unskilled workers, then pay $500 a year to put them in the apprenticeship, said Lisa Boyette, director of education for Associated Builders.

“There are three criteria: classroom instruction, hands-on training and on-the-job training,” Boyette said. “Our students come out the other end only needing 10 general study classes to get their associate of science degree at HCC.”

It is a four-year apprenticeship, with classes two nights a week from August through April. Students work their regular construction jobs during the day, getting on-the-job training.

“When the Women’s Centre started in 1977, this was one of their first programs,” said Women Building Futures program manager Luis Rodriguez, who signed up 24 women for the first set of workshops. “The idea was to help women step into roles traditionally held by male breadwinners.”

Interest dropped off when the economy was robust. But with the huge shortage of skilled tradespeople today, the need arose once again, said Cathy Campbell-Heroux, director of women’s business initiatives for the center. “All the construction folks are very enthusiastic about this program. And we’re back to our roots.”

The eight-week program costs $65 a week, based on a sliding scale. Once women complete it, the goal is to get them into apprenticeships that will lead them into the field — and new careers.

“Tradespeople come in and give the students an overview of what the trade entails,” Rodriguez said. “They talk about the business side and the training side.”

So far, two of the women who completed the first Women Building Futures program have applied for jobs with contractors, and Gorman hopes to be next. Another got hired immediately by a big-box store when its hiring staff learned she had gone through the program. Another woman landed a job as an administrative assistant in a construction office, which she hopes will lead to an apprenticeship, Rodriguez said.

“It’s a path to more money and a path to explore these occupations without a total commitment,” Campbell said. “And they don’t have to quit their jobs to do it.” Students can attend classes twice a week in the evening or just on Saturdays.

Orientation for the Women Building Futures programs will be on Monday and Tuesday. For more details, contact Rodriguez to set up an appointment by calling (813) 232-3200, ext. 233.

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