—by Susan Eisenberg

I still remember a few questions from my April 1978 interview to become an apprentice electrician in Boston.

“What does it mean that you’re from Cleveland?” Seven stern-faced men waited for a response. My mind raced, but I didn’t have a clue what I should say about growing up in Cleveland! Billy Swanson, my future apprenticeship director whose bluntness was already familiar to me, stepped in.

When I’d called five months earlier to find out about apprenticeship, he’d told me, “The unions don’t want you. The contractors don’t want you. We’ll call you if we need you.” When President Carter issued the affirmative action Executive Orders, I got a call from Billy to come in for an interview that same month.

He translated the committee’s question: “Are you an Indians fan or a Red Sox fan?” The answer was obvious –– forgive me Jimmy Piersall and Rocky Colavito!!!

Another question, “Do you understand this is a career, not a job?” –– also easy. Why else would someone go through a four-year apprenticeship, 40-hours/week of hard work and two nights a week of classes?! I was there for a career.

Though I think it was sincere at the time, from 30 years forward looking back, that question has a sting. The way our history has played out, it’s really women who should ask the industry, What’s being offered, a job or a career?

Most women don’t know that apprenticeships are not always regulated to offer everyone the full range of on-the-job experience to reach journeylevel well-qualified. That often there are two tracks: one for the contractor’s core workforce and one for short-term cheap labor. Merit seems less a factor than connections, and whether or not a person is thought to “fit in” (be a lot like everyone who’s already there) or have other vague qualities that are easy smokescreens for discrimination. Ironworker Gayann Wilkinson advises apprentices to go in with a Plan A and a Plan A.

A problem of having affirmative action monitoring (what little there is) focus on mega-projects, is that big jobs have more rote work. Female apprentices are often relegated –– not to ‘easy’ or ‘clean’ jobs –– but often to the heaviest, dirtiest or dullest tasks common to huge jobsites. As I recently heard a woman pipefitter disclose about her classmates who had spent their apprenticeships coring holes, “They’re not really employable as journeywomen.”

Early on I thought it was about having the right attitude. Important, of course! But I’ve come to think it’s largely about luck. The luck of having an ally who has some power and is willing to act on your behalf. And not having someone with power who unfairly blocks you: prevents you from learning a crucial skill, moving to the next pay grade, or receiving your journeycard. There needs to be a better system, with oversights and recourse. Leaders –– union officials and contractors –– need to be those strong allies that speak out for fairness.

Too many women who fight to get good training and make it through apprenticeships find discrimination in hiring and layoffs once they reach full rate. They don’t get a chance to work at their trade and to make the living they trained for. They drop out after a year or two because of unemployment at journeylevel.

OFCCP is developing new federal affirmative action regs, expected out this summer. They’ve been asked to include a separate goal for the employment of journeywomen. This will be critical.

The industry needs to keep the women they’ve trained to serve as role models, mentors, and advisors. And to deliver on a promise. When tradeswomen can retire with the same pensions as the men from their apprenticeship class, we’ll have proof of good faith effort.

Current affirmative action policies make it easy to employ female apprentices instead of journeywomen. That needs to change. Policies that fail to protect the careers of women who are already trained, are policies for short-term jobs masquerading as careers.



  1. When I was an apprentice, our instructor told us (as a class) that we had to take responsibility for our career, and when we mastered the task we were doing, to ask for a different assignment so that we could expand our skills. He told a story about an apprentice who was working under a journeyman who was hostile and not a good teacher for several months, who eventually went to his foreman and said “I’ve learned everything I can from this journeyman, I need to learn from someone else now”- and got it. Because I was told to take this attitude, I once quit a job during my apprenticeship in order to learn more- I had been doing material handling and laborer work for 4 months (I’m a carpenter). Finish work was starting on the building, and I asked to be assigned to it rather than laborer work. The foreman said “laborer work is all we have for you”, and I told him that if he didn’t have any carpenter work for me then maybe he should lay me off. He did, that afternoon, and I went on to better work. Part of having a career is that you can’t let any particular job get in the way of it. Learning this was not luck on my part; it was the good teaching of that apprenticeship instructor. Yes, it’s hard to forgo work, but we get taught what the “proper attitudes” are during our apprenticeship and that proper modeling is very powerful. That looking out for your own career will not only bring you well-rounded skills, but will keep you working steady in the long run, even if it means a layoff today. (and the same instructor carefully emphasized that you always have to be financially prepared for a layoff)


    1. Thanks for that Seattle history, Aspen. You raise a good point about whether an apprentice has a right to quit a job. I don’t think that’s always allowed — but you show why that’s an important option. It sounds like getting well-rounded training counted on your own outspokenness and the backing of your training program, or at least one instructor. It’s interesting what a difference can be made by even someone with minimal power when they take leadership.


  2. Dear Susan,

    I appreciate your position and agree. I just sent Lauren Sugerman a note to please read this Blog. I also suggested to her that perhaps we need a National Registry of card carrying women Journey Workers. Atleast when the work is around…even if it is on Mega Projects….when contractors claim they can not find a journey female…she can get a call and have the option to travel to a job? I know it is inconvenient to be away from home and work….in fact this is how the Elevator Contractors have treated me in my career ever since I became a Journey woman. They have sent me to the far reaches of the Local’s jurisdiction and on occassion, “loaned” me to other Locals. While I hated it….and still do….atleast I earned a paycheck and hours toward my pension fund.
    Let’s face it, they hate us being there and have used all the tricks and more to get us to quit and keep us from rising up to any enjoyable level in the business as a career. All we can do is keep fighting. Changing the Unions treatment of women and the Contractors treatment of women is a tall order for any Government. I do hope, like you, the problems of utilizing Journey Women on Mega Projects will be addressed. Heck, how nice would it have been for you when you entered the trade if your “Partner” could have been a Journey Woman? This is one of the results for which we strive.

    Speaking of “Partners”…I read in your work, ” Pioneering, Poems from the Construction Site”, Partners #1-9 and this poem touched me deeply. You see the Elevator Trade assigns us in Pairs also and well…..I could fully relate. You are a marvelous woman to have put these things to pen and to have it out there for the World to read and get a clue. Thank you very much!


    L.J. Dolin
    Female Elevator Mechanic, Local 131, Albuuerque, NM


    1. ps. One word about Mega Projects though…If I would have been able to begin my Elevator Career on the Federal Building Project that went up in Oakland, CA. And had the job site been favorble to women workers… I could have worked completely through an Apprenticeship, (had the elevator trade have apprenticeship at the time) and Journey out. That Mega Project lasted 5 years, plenty of time to learn it all.


      1. Thanks for adding these thoughts, LJ. I’m wondering how much things vary by trade. Elevator mechanics — a fabulous trade that I never knew existed before I worked in construction! — might do better on bigger jobs. The crews might be small enough that you would, on a long job, like the Federal Project in Oakland, get the full range of work. In Boston, we’ve had the Boston Resident Jobs Policy (50% Boston residents, 25% minorities, 10% women — another set of regs that was enforced in its early years) which applies to jobs over 10,000 square feet. Smaller jobs, by nature, seem more likely to give an apprentice a wide range of exposure. Especially if they’re on from start to end and really get to see how all the parts fit together. But even on a mega-project, rotating apprentices to work on different crews and getting a range of work could be enforced by those responsible for apprenticeship. And, rotating them off when they’re no longer learning.


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