New York, NY – It’s a big leap from renovating apartments to helping to build One World Trade Center — but 10 years ago, the pre-apprenticeship program known as NEW [Nontraditional Employment for Women] made the jump possible for Trinidadian emigre and UA Plumbers Local 1 journeywoman Mellissa Brotherson — just like they continue to help other women successfully break into the Building Trades today.
“I Googled women in construction and NEW was the first search result that came up,” Brotherson says. “I did non-conventional work before — I would do tile work, painting, plastering and stuff like that, just home repairs. I couldn’t work in retail; I didn’t have the patience for it.”
First-year IBEW Local 3 apprentice Zyaire Taylor was selling bicycles at Paragon Sports in Manhattan when she realized she really loved mechanics and “putting stuff together.”
“I [also] knew I wanted a more stable career,” the 23-year-old says. “I wanted to make more money, so that’s what drew me to NEW and the union.”
Sheet Metal Workers Local 28 apprentice Miranda McConniughey was incarcerated and wondering what she would do after her release when she learned about NEW’s pre-apprenticeship program.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do when I came home,” the 36-year-old says. “My sister wanted us to open up a boutique together. My counselor said, ‘I know a program.’ She brought me a pamphlet — and it was NEW. I though about it for a couple of months. This I decided that’s what I’m going to do — and I just went forward.”
During the time Brotherson has been in the union, NEW has brought more than 1,500 additional women into the Building Trades. Together with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater NY, NEW recently embarked on an enhanced effort to recruit 50-percent more women into the still overwhelmingly male dominated construction industry.
“There are a lot of girls coming in [to the Plumbers] directly from NEW,” Brotherson says. “The other trades, you see it, but you don’t see it. Certain trades are more accepting of female apprentices than others. Fortunately, mine is one of them that is very accepting of it. We want to change that for the other trades — I hope it changes.”
Taylor calls her IBEW Local 3 apprenticeship “the best thing I’ve ever done in my life — hands down.”
“I know exactly where I’m going to be in the next couple of years, which is great for me,” the Bronx resident says. “I know that I am going to be a journeywoman. Hopefully, work in a great shop; earn great benefits; get a new apartment. There’re so many areas working with electricity, I’m still trying to find out what I really like. The only other women on the job I see, I went to NEW with; I haven’t encountered a woman on my job site yet out of the three that I’ve been on so far.”
McConniughey, who runs a plasma machine in her shop in the Bronx helping to produce duct work for LaGuardia Airport, Resort Casinos, Graduate hotels, Mount Sinai Hospital and other high profile institutions, says she works alongside other women all the time.
“I see a lot of women; there are a lot of females in the drawing department; we work in all different parts of the shop,” the Rochester, New York product says. “I get to see other females every day I go to work.”
Retention is a major component of NEW’s campaign to help bring more women into the Building Trades. As Brotherson says, “It’s not a tea party.”
“When I first started, this was was my first job, and a shop steward actually told me, ‘I don’t think you’re going to last.’” Brotherson recalls. “He said that to me in my face. You’re not going to last here. And I said, oh, yeah? And I showed him.”
Taylor acknowledges the on-the-job challenges, but believes the future is bright for women in the Building Trades.
“Even now, where I’m working, a lot of guys, I feel like they kind of expected less of me when I walked in the door,” she says. “And then when I walk out — they’re more impressed. They know that I know what I’m doing. And that I’m confident in what I’m doing.”
Confidence, preparedness and grit are all elements that NEW tries to cultivate in every new apprentice they train
“NEW trains its graduates for long-term success and growth in construction and related fields,” organization president Kathleen Culhane says. “Among the several focuses of our training is preparation for the challenges one may face entering an industry whose workforce is predominantly men, which starts with lifetime social work and retention services that support graduates with the guidance they need to thrive in the long term.”
In the short term, Culhane points out that NEW tradeswomen frequently return to NEW to speak about their experiences and approaches to succeeding as one of few women on a project, and to provide mentorship to the next generation of tradeswomen.
Mentoring is an aspect of her trade unionism that Brotherson especially appreciates.
“I also teach OSHA [safety training classes],” the 36-year-old mom says. “The NEW apprentices have to take my class first. That’s when I catch all the young ladies and tell them…listen, if you need my help this is my card, this is my number, call me up, anything you need.”
Despite the comprehensive training, Brotherson says some young women entering the Building Trades are not “mentally prepared” for the realities of working alongside men doing difficult jobs.
“If there’s a conversation around you, or you’re overhearing something or you see a drawing on the wall or something like that…what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate? And who do you go to?” Brotherson says. “Sometimes, you might go straight to the foreman when you could handle the situation differently because you don’t want to be blackballed. There’re many ways to handle the situation. A lot of girls come in and they don’t understand, or they’ll let things slide because they don’t think they have a voice.”
In addition to supporting the career advancement of women in the trades, so as to infuse greater senses of normalcy regarding women’s roles in the trades, Culhane also points out that NEW’s core programs include training on sexual harassment prevention, knowing ones rights, conflict resolution workplace hierarchies, managing one’s stress and more.
“There’s a certain level of toughness that you have to have,” Brotherson says. “I’m not saying get verbally abused — be assertive, don’t let them mess with you because they will try to mess with you. As soon as you come, they’ll test you and see how far they can go. So, if you shut that down right away, they know, okay, this girl I can’t mess with.”
Talk to enough tradeswomen working in the industry today, and they’ll also tell you that they attribute much of their success to the elder tradesmen who mentored them, took them under their wing and taught them the elite skills that make union workers irreplaceable.
UA Local 1 Director of Trade Education Artie Klock handpicked Brotherson to be a training instruction at the union’s Long Island City facility. Today, Brotherson salutes the union for allowing her the opportunity to help care for her mom Angela Gillead — the first woman who inspired her career path, raising a family back in Trinidad working as a construction worker.
“I used to be kind of embarrassed,” Brotherson says. “My mom wasn’t a nurse or office worker, or something nice where she could dress up — she was in work clothes. I would see her after work in town and I would pretend I didn’t see her because back then, that was not desirable for a female. She’s retired now. I’ve helped out a lot. I’ve rebuilt her house. The union has given me an opportunity to do more for her than I ever did before.”