Women in skilled trades hone skills, explore careers, network with industry experts

(Courtesy photo) Driving big equipment is a highlight of Project Accelerate

Camille Reed is a business owner who wants to learn more about the construction industry. Brenna Mosley is a 2018 East Kentwood High School graduate with a dream to run an architecture and construction firm. Serena Small is a stay-at-home mother pursuing a degree in construction management. Elma Balic is an architectural drafter who wants to get away from from her desk and into the field.

The women, all with different backgrounds and goals, are exploring careers in construction, engineering, design and skilled trades by visiting businesses, seeing fieldwork up close and getting into the driver’s seats of big machines. They are completing Project Accelerate, a seven-week, once-weekly course offered through The Build Initiative, a Pontiac-based program that works to build knowledge for women interested in construction and related fields.

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(Courtesy photo) Women in Project Accelerate, pictured with an engineer, visit a worksite

“My goal is to get as much information about the industry as possible,” Mosley said.

Grand Rapids Community College is hosting the 10-woman cohort, the first for Grand Rapids, in space at the GRCC Leslie E.Tassell M-TEC. GRCC instructors lead sessions on carpentry and safety. Another cohort is planned for next fall.

“Our participants are entry level to CEO,” said Program Director Rita Brown, as participants attended a Friday session on construction law in a GRCC classroom. “What they have in common is they’re women and they want more knowledge. You can lead better with more knowledge, (and) you can learn better when you know where to get that knowledge.”

Women are networking, aligning talents and learning the scope of jobs available in the traditionally male-dominated fields, she said. They drove Caterpillar construction machines with help from Michigan CAT and Operating Engineers 324 representatives, read blueprints with an engineer from Soils and Structures and listened to speakers in the industry.

“This program is about gearing up; it’s about exposing strengths we didn’t even know we had, reinforcing areas that need to be reinforced,” said Brown, who relies on volunteers to run the program. “Not a single bit of this is about lack at all. This as about the fact that we can do it for ourselves. It’s about accelerating our careers.”

Julie Parks, GRCC executive director of workplace training, said GRCC is excited about the partnership and to bring women into the building who are involved in construction and related fields. “We have women in our skilled trade programs and this is a way to connect them with people in the industry,” she said.

GRCC is exploring ways to provide articulated credits for Project Accelerate experiences in the future. “What we are really trying to do is help find pathways,” Parks said.

Brenna Mosley, a 2018 East Kentwood High School graduate, is exploring careers in construction

Showing the Way for Women

Brown knows how to navigate the industry. She owns a steel detailing company and is the north central regional director for National Association of Women in Construction. She started Project Accelerate about six years ago after realizing the need. It also has cohorts in Detroit and Flint.

During the economic downturn, Brown had to downsize her staff. Her female employees were unsure of their next move.“The men seemed to be at least a little bit more sure of what they could possibly do, but the women were not as sure,” she said.

According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 9 percent of U.S. construction workers are women. Jobs are in high demand. According to West Michigan Works 2018 Hot Jobs list, jobs in construction are all projected to grow by at least 11 percent and as much as 22 percent by 2024.

Project Accelerate can help launch women into those jobs. “We are not trying to populate one single area of the industry. We are trying to make sure that women have the knowledge and opportunity to decide what their next best steps are,” Brown said. “From this program they will move to actual training programs, certification programs, degrees, jobs or will become better at the work they are already doing,” she said.

Participant Camille Reed, who co-owns a multi-service company that specializes in painting, carpentry and facilities management, said she wants to meet other professional women through Project Accelerate.

“For me, it’s the empowerment they are giving ladies to enter the construction field,” she said. She also was part of a Detroit cohort of Project Accelerate in June and July, and has learned everything from bricklaying, engineering, work-site development and road construction. “This is just giving me another insight of the construction field, and it gives me the change to network,” she said.

Serena Small, of Lansing, never considered a career in construction until she met Brown at a program called Women In Skilled Trades. She is currently enrolled at Lansing Community College majoring in construction management, which she knows will connect her to many different opportunities. She said Project Accelerate is another way to build her construction savvy.

“It’s opening my eyes to the construction industry as far as it’s not just manual labor. There are a lot of different careers in the construction industry,” Small said.

“This is definitely what I needed. I needed more information on the possibilities and the different careers that there are.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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