Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summer, Sawdust and Skillsaws

One of the high points of 2008 has been my opportunity to enroll in a program for Construction Skills for Women sponsored by Vermont Works for Women. I found out about it when I interviewed at the Department of Labor for a spot in the Step Up to Highway Construction program. Vermont Works for Women, a non-profit based in Winooski, VT, provides training and workshops for women exploring careers considered traditionally "male." In addition, VWW provides classes for girls to build their practical skills, express themselves creatively and expose them to professional female mentors.

Construction Skills for Women is really the title of a series of classes; the specific course that I participated in was for carpentry. The moderators of the program displayed high expectations for class participants. Each of us had to interview for the program twice, explain clearly in each interview why we thought we'd be good candidates for the program, and make a commitment to finish the program. Despite the sort of pedagogical spin with which I may have flavored this description, our program coordinators Rachel and Kristen showed uncanny insight in handling each woman's personal situation. I was repeatedly impressed with their "people sense" and ability to manage "situations" gracefully.

The educational aspects of these classes were most valuable. Though most of us hadn't really had much professional experience as carpenters, it became clear that all of us had little fear of getting our hands dirty. Classroom time Tuesday and Wednesday evenings broached topics such as what to expect from the construction trades, workplace environment, self-employment and job-finding skills. Fairly confident in my interviewing skills, I most appreciated the number of professional business owners, mostly women, who participated our class panel discussions. This generous gift of time gave me a lot of personal satisfaction. Women may not be common in construction or carpentry, but we do have a presence. Fab. I'm not ruling out power tools for Christmas yet.

In addition to great speakers, we also had the opportunity to accept on-site placements known as "job shadows." For one day (sometimes a few hours, depending on the work being done) we were allowed to work on active construction sites. I was able to do this three times during the course of the classes. Each time, I had access to a different aspect of the trade. My first placement was on site for a new bank building in Colchester. At this site, I got to use a drill, a circular saw, use a Paslode cordless nailer to set siding and operate a pneumatic lift. I also spent the second half of the day working with a really cool woman named Sylvia who had been in construction for about 14 years.

My next placement was in a private home in Addison County helping two guys finish remodeling work on an old Vermont home. That day, I got to cut and measure drywall, spray foam insulation, and briefly handle a Sawzall. I liked this job shadow for the opportunity it gave me to talk to the other guys on the job about their experiences in the field. It also pointed out to me how differently one has to behave in a domestic environment vs. a regular construction site. Navigating some of the upstairs rooms while wearing a full tool belt and work boots was a special sort of ballet.

The third job shadow I took had me working with the foreman installing cabinets in a new home. This was my first experience on a sustainable build, and I got to ask a few questions about standards, power usage, and materials. This crew was great. The camaraderie was palpable, and I never felt blown off or excluded. In fact, the day went by so fast at this site, that I was actually surprised to hear someone say that it was 4:00 pm! Never had a desk job like that.

Rounding out the classroom discussions and exercises, Saturdays during the course we worked on an actual construction project. As a class, we built a garden shed under the fearless supervision of Amy Judd, proprietress of Plane Jane Builders. Gotta love anyone who'd ditch the office in order to contribute to the skyline of Essex Junction, VT. Amy is not only a confident carpenter, but she is a gifted teacher in numerous ways. Most valuable is her talent for maintaining an active work site where everyone, regardless of personality type, feels at ease. She is also super at letting everyone discover their strengths, not just their weaknesses. Amy was really clear about everyone jumping in and "getting out of their comfort zone."

In any event, it was a great experience. Although I haven't landed a carpenter's assistant position yet, the experience I've had working with others in construction is invaluable. I will be spending two days (Saturday July 5th and Monday July 7th) on a Habitat for Humanity build in Milton. I am scheduled to go back again on August 16th, and look forward to sharing my time and energy with the volunteers on site. While I search for a job, the opportunity to lend my arm to building homes for others sure seems like a fair trade.

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