June 9, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
“I might as well have been a ballerina, schlepping a concrete hose while balancing on a float stage,” dockbuilder Latoya Bolen told the more than 900 people filling a ballroom at the New York Hilton hotel June 4.
Bolen, a member of District Council of Carpenters Local 1556, the Dockbuilders and Timbermen, was one of four people given “Equity Leadership” awards by Nontraditional Employment for Women.
The other three were Matthew Chartrand, business manager of Ironworkers Local 361; Maryanne Gilmartin, president and CEO of developer Forest City Ratner; and Jane Chmielnicki, retired chief operating officer of the construction-services corporation Aecom Technology. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito received a special-recognition honor.
Nontraditional Employment for Women, founded in 1978, is a pre-apprenticeship training program for women seeking jobs in construction, transportation, energy, and maintenance. Over the last 10 years, it has placed more than 2,000 women in jobs, said President Kathleen Culhane.
NEW’s supporters reflect the collaboration of unions and developers common in the construction industry. “Programs like this don’t happen in the nonunion world,” said Terrence Moore, business manager of Ironworkers Local 46. Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, praised it for “a success rate that can be looked at as a national model.” And developer Bruce Ratner, longtime chair of Forest City Ratner, said the program was very important in a nation where more than 40% of households are headed by women, but only 3% of construction workers are female.
“I love being a plumber,” Erin Sweeney of UA Plumbers Local 1 told the crowd. I would not be where I am without NEW.” She and Stacy Knutt of Laborers Local 79 were the two 2015 graduates honored.
For Latoya Bolen, NEW was both “a safe haven for women who had no clue how to break into the construction industry” and a place where you had to “go hard or not at all.” She entered the program in 2009, when, after eight frustrating years selling shoes for $250 aweek plus commission, she needed more money to help her ailing mother. Last year, she said, she worked 60 hours a week and earned more than $100,000.
NEW, she said, taught her both the technical skills and the social skills needed to handle life on the job—such as her first job after graduation, when she was one of two women on a crew of 30 to 40 workers rebuilding the Willis Avenue Bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx. That crew, she said, “made me a dockbuilder,” such as by explaining that cutting bridge timbers doesn’t need as precise measurements as building furniture. She received a standing ovation after telling the crowd that she was “humbled” by getting the award because “to me, it means I’ve earned the respect of the people who brought me to where I am.”