More and more these days, the people working on construction sites across the Portland-metro region are not just white men.
The sight of more women and people of color in hard hats is one sign of a more concerted effort by the industry to diversify its workforce amid a building boom and labor shortage.
Recruiting outside the white male population not only gives developers and contractors a larger pool of workers to choose from, but also benefits the region economically by helping to lift more families and communities out of poverty with regular work that provides them with livable wages and benefits.
That stability means they no longer have to make choices between paying rent, buying food or seeing a doctor. Instead, they can raise their families in the same house and neighborhood, keep their kids in the same school and become involved with their community.
The push to increase the representation of women and people of color in the trades comes at a time when an estimated 8,800 new construction jobs will be created in the metro region during the next five years by large public projects, including schools, hospitals and light rail.
Metro's Construction Careers Pathways Project is convening regional stakeholders to learn more about the barriers to recruitment and retention that exist for women and people of color in the trades and to identify strategies to provide them with reliable career pathways.
Breaking into the industry can be difficult, but free pre-apprenticeship programs offered by local organizations like Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. and Constructing Hope are helping to equip students with the skills necessary to succeed.
Here are stories of some of those who have graduated from the programs and are now working in the trades.
Carly Rush, 36, never considered a career in the trades until a family friend who was an electrician suggested that she pursue it. She had grown tired of her office jobs and the thought of not sitting at a desk all day appealed to her.
She says she did terrible on the panel interview, which left her with a low rank on the list of eligible apprentices. She was steered toward OTI's seven-week program. The class took them on field trips to job sites to expose them to a variety of trades and taught them the basics of the industry, from blueprints and construction math to power tools and job safety — and even mock interviews.
During the class, she discovered she enjoyed sheet metal work and within a month of graduation, she landed a job as an apprentice with Gunderson Inc., a rail-car manufacturer and shipbuilder.
"It seemed they took me more seriously because of OTI," she said.
She later joined the local sheet metal union and has had stable work since — now in the fourth year of a five-year apprenticeship. She aspires to eventually run her own crews as a foreman.
Not only does she enjoy the work, but it has provided her with the pay and benefits needed to support her family. Her starting wage as an apprentice was 50 percent of a journey worker's pay and she receives raises every six months as well as health insurance for her and her family.
"The first day I started working, it was the highest-paid job I ever had and I was making half of what I would be making in five years," she said. "It's been great."
Some jobs go through a slow period and she temporarily finds herself out of work, but the downtime has never been a problem as long as she plans ahead.
Rush has only ever worked with one other woman at a job site and knows that harassment exists within the construction industry, but says she's experienced none of it.
Instead, there are little things that bother her, like being pigeonholed into organizing and cleaning tasks on job sites. She has had coworkers advocate on her behalf to make sure she becomes as well-rounded an apprentice as possible, but her hope is that, overall, she and other women would simply be given more opportunities to do harder work.
"We're capable of anything that a man is," Rush said. "You run into people that don't think we're as strong or can't work as hard, but given the chance, they'd see that's not true."
Kennitha Wade, electrician
Growing up, Kennitha Wade, 36, always liked working with her hands and had tried to get into construction for a long time but didn't know how.
She eventually heard about OTI and joined a class in April 2012, leaving behind her job as a hairstylist. Within two weeks of graduating, she was working as an electrician apprentice with IBEW Local 48.
She's worked on a number of projects ranging from Intel and Oregon Health and Science University to Topgolf and residential remodels. She became a journey wireman in 2017 and is active with her union.
She acknowledged that working in a male-dominated field can be challenging. She says women are under constant pressure to prove themselves, which can often take a toll on them and lead them to quit.
"You have to have a tough skin and can't take anything personal," she said. "You have to deal with sexism that women don't belong there or aren't capable of whatever so you have to prove yourself a lot."
Since she works with many of the same people, Wade says that by now, her reputation and work ethic speaks for itself, but there are still times when she starts working at a new shop and feels as if she has to prove herself again.
The mother of five, ages ranging from three years old to 16, said daycare can also be a challenge for women working in the trades.
She and her husband try to work opposite schedules, but there are days when she has to be at a job site earlier or later than when the daycare opens or closes.
"Not all are OK with employees showing up an hour or two hours late," she said.
Still, she finds the work rewarding and the pay allows her to support her family. She also takes pride in showing her kids projects that she has had a hand in.
"I get to show them around town and tell them, 'I got to help with that building,' which they think is pretty cool," she said.
Wade says that to move the industry forward, more effort needs to go into recruiting and retaining women and people of color.
She says contractors should visit schools more often and that it's important that the kids can see themselves going into the trades.
"If you send a white man to an all-girl school with minorities, the chances of them connecting to him are slim because they don't see themselves in him," she said. "But if you send someone who looks like them, they're more likely to consider it."
She also said that having support groups or services would help to increase retention rates.
"Most of the time you feel like you're alone on job sites as the only female or person of color," Wade said. "It would help to be able to decompress and be able to talk with other people that look like me."
Ramona McCarter, millwright helper
Not too long ago, Ramona McCarter, 31, was working at Subway and other customer-service jobs, struggling to make ends meet.
It dawned on her one day that she should be a millwright, or industrial mechanic. McCarter, who grew up in Detroit and came from a family of engineers and craftsmen, was familiar with the trades. She enrolled in Constructing Hope's program, ready to learn as much as she could.
Nearly two years later, McCarter is working full-time as a millwright helper at Precision Castparts, no longer worried about how she'll pay next month's rent. She is working on becoming an Industrial Mechanic 1, but hopes to eventually transition to electrical work.
"I don't ever worry that I can't make it," she said. "My son has everything he needs. I have everything I need. If I want to travel, I can. I never thought I could have a savings account, but now I have three."
She recently bought herself a new Jeep and she and her son welcomed a new addition to the family – a cat.
McCarter says the job can be difficult but it's worth it. She has racist coworkers, but doesn't let their remarks bother her.
"I don't know what other people experience, but you either like me or don't like me," she said. "I could care less; at the end of the day, I'm still always going to be me."
She says she also doesn't feel the need to prove herself to anyone, recounting a time when she and a male coworker were tasked with carrying 5-gallon buckets of wet sand. Knowing her strength, she only filled the bucket halfway with sand. But her coworker attempted to carry two or three full buckets at a time and ended up tripping and falling.
"I'm only in competition with myself," she said.