Building up women for careers in construction

Tana Harris of Harris Hoisting is not just a woman in construction but a major contractor, running the huge cranes that build the skyscrapers, the biggest and most challenging equipment on a job. Her crew is half women.

Pathways to prosperity aren’t just a pipefitter’s dream

by Bettina Cohen

“Help wanted.” “Construction workers needed.” “Training will be provided.” “Women encouraged to apply.”

In the weeks ahead, two free pre-apprenticeship training programs exclusively for women seeking entry into the construction trades in the Bay Area will begin. One’s in San Francisco; the other is in Oakland. 

Both programs provide a first step toward self-sustaining work and union membership for women who might never have considered a career in construction. Mission Rock Academy begins on Sept. 20 and runs through Oct. 22. This first cohort will be solely for women. 

Mission Rock Academy will train people for jobs on the 28-acre Mission Rock project site in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. When completed, Mission Rock will be a mixed-use community with brand-new housing, restaurants and retail, a life science building, Visa’s global headquarters, a parking garage, midblock pedestrian walkways, and a waterfront park on the south bank of China Basin opposite Oracle Park, where the San Francisco Giants play. The project broke ground in April 2020. It’s scheduled for completion in 2025. 

The Mission Rock Academy groundbreaking ceremony was held on Tuesday, June 22, 2021, emceed by Renel Brooks-Moon (seated at left). At the ceremony, Mayor London Breed emphasized the importance of people being recruited into construction jobs through programs like Mission Rock Academy – since they could possibly be building the home they might one day live in. – Photo: Bettina Cohen

The Mission Rock development team – the San Francisco Giants, Tishman Speyer and the Port of San Francisco – has committed to five Mission Rock Academy pre-apprenticeship training sessions while work on Mission Rock continues. Mission Rock Academy is a partnership between the developers, the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD), CityBuild Academy and Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit that helps match the employment needs of San Francisco’s low-income residents with the workforce development needs of local employers.

“Mission Rock wanted the first training to be women focused,” said Michelle Leonard-Bell, interim executive director for Mission Hiring Hall. “Women can do this work! Often women do not know of the vast opportunities available to them in this sector because it is such a male dominated field. Our goal is to share this opportunity of training and placement into livable wage careers.”

General contractors Swinerton, Hathaway Dinwiddie Nibbi Joint Venture, and Webcor are helping to place program participants into jobs on the Mission Rock project.

Graduates of Mission Rock Academy will have their union indenture fee paid once they’re placed in a union apprenticeship program, where they’ll continue to learn a trade. Those induction fees can range from $50 to $1,100, depending on the union. 

Childcare is available, “because some of you have children,” Leonard-Bell told 10 women, nearly all of whom were Black, who attended an orientation session in late July. By mid-August, Mission Rock Academy’s all-female cohort already had 15 serious applicants for the 15 spots available. 

Across the Bay, Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, an Oakland-based nonprofit, offers free training through Opportunity Build, an industry-certified pathway to union apprenticeship in the skilled trades for low-income adults experiencing significant barriers to employment, with an emphasis on serving women and individuals impacted by the justice system.

Three 10- to 12-week cohorts are offered annually, one of which is an all-women cohort called Opportunity Build Women Building the Bay. The next Women Building the Bay cohort will begin on Oct. 4 and wrap up Dec. 14.

Juanita Douglas, construction instructor and business liaison for Rising Sun, came out of retirement to teach the Opportunity Build classes. Her LinkedIn profile states, “I LOVE MY JOB.”

Juanita Douglas, construction instructor and business liaison for Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, an Oakland-based nonprofit, especially enjoys inviting women along the path she followed into construction, becoming an apprentice in one of the building trades. The program is called Opportunity Build Women Building the Bay. She mastered both the carpentry and land surveying trades.

In the cohort that was ready to wrap up when we spoke in August, eight out of the 19 students in that Opportunity Build class were women. Douglas said of the seven classes she’s taught, two were Women Building the Bay; the others were split about 50-50 between women and men.

There were no pre-apprenticeship programs available when Douglas started in 1983. She went directly into an apprenticeship program to learn carpentry, moved up to journeyman and worked 17 years as a commercial carpenter in San Francisco, then worked another 15 years as a land surveyor with two civil engineering firms. One of those jobs was with Mitchell Engineering on San Francisco’s Muni Metro Third Street Light Rail project, the railway the T-Third Street streetcar runs on.

“First job I worked was in Petaluma. There were two women there because it was required to have a couple of women on the jobsite. From then on, there might have been one or two jobs in San Francisco where there were other women, but on most jobs, I was the only one,” Douglas said. “In the early 1990s, more women started showing up.”

Douglas said she was fortunate to have an extended family of female relatives who were able to watch her elementary school-aged son while she was taking her apprenticeship. The application form for Opportunity Build asks whether the applicant has reliable childcare, because it’s often a barrier for young parents. Douglas said that increasingly, single fathers have a need for childcare.

“The biggest issue with construction and childcare is most jobs start between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Some earlier,” Douglas said. 

She’d never considered a construction career – the tip from a friend changed the course of her life.

Having been incarcerated isn’t a barrier into the construction trades. However, applicants to programs like Opportunity Build Women Building the Bay and Mission Rock Academy must be able to pass a drug test, including for marijuana. That’s because work on a construction site can be dangerous. 

Applicants to Rising Sun’s pre-apprentice classes are seeking an upward trajectory in their lives. “They’re employed in low-paying jobs in retail, food service or something of that kind. Some are unhoused, living in a shelter,” said Kelsey Petrone, director of development and communications for Rising Sun.

Opportunity Build Women Building the Bay has direct entry or similar agreements with the Sheet Metal Workers Local 104, UA Local 342 – which represents plumbers, steamfitters, refrigeration and pipefitters – Carpenters Local 713, and it’s unofficially a go-to program for Operating Engineers Union, Local 3. 

Union apprenticeship coordinator

Meg-Anne Pryor, apprenticeship coordinator for the Operating Engineers Union, Local 3, dropped in to say hello and offer her business card to career-seekers at the all-women Mission Rock Academy orientation. In her current role, Pryor helps usher newly graduated trainees, both men and women of all ages, into Local 3’s apprenticeship program and provides continuing guidance and support once they’re in the program.

Pryor grew up in Bayview Hunters Point. After graduating from Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, she enrolled in City College to learn culinary arts. It wasn’t until she was 26 and working in a DSW shoe store in Daly City that a friend told her about CityBuild Academy. 

DSW had just offered her fulltime employment. She’d never considered a construction career. The tip from a friend changed the course of her life. 

“I always had an interest in working outside. I don’t mind getting dirty. But I didn’t want to be doing backbreaking work for the rest of my life. All I would see when I drove past a job site was people just holding signs directing traffic, or shoveling dirt,” Pryor said. 

Meg-Anne Pryor, apprenticeship coordinator for the Operating Engineers Union, Local 3, on a jobsite visiting one of her apprentices. Like many women, she grew up unaware of the possibilities of a lucrative job in the trades. She now works to help all people interested in the trades complete apprenticeships, guiding them along the path of gainful employment and a stable career.

Like many people unfamiliar with construction work, she had no idea of the variety of lucrative trades out there until she enrolled in CityBuild. It opened her eyes to the possibilities of jobs such as glazier, electrician, plumber, pipefitter, welder, carpenter and operating engineer – think tower cranes, pile-drivers, forklifts, backhoes, boom trucks and Bobcat excavators.

To get a sense of what some of these jobs pay, carpenters start at $31.93 per hour and go up to about $60, Douglas said. Pipefitters start at $27 and go up to $70. Surveyors start at $21 and top out at $54. “The lower pay are the laborers,” Douglas said. “They top out at $45 per hour.”

After graduating as class valedictorian from CityBuild, Pryor joined Hazmat Laborers, Local 67, and assisted in lead and asbestos abatement. Then she joined Operating Engineers, Local 3, enrolling in their apprenticeship program. 

“As an apprentice, you’d be doing some of the grunt work. Shoveling, directing traffic, getting coffee, organizing the CONEX, doing some housekeeping to clean up the jobsite,” Pryor said. A CONEX is a large toolbox the size of a shipping container or storage shed. 

Union staff noticed her model work ethic, attendance at union meetings and willingness to volunteer for union activities, so when the apprenticeship coordinator position became available, she was encouraged to apply, and she got the job.

Meg-Anne Pryor’s supervisor, Cat Lytle, director of training, poses with Meg-Anne and Mayor London Breed at a career fair in San Francisco.

Pryor currently has four women apprentices she signed up in the two years before the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple of women she spoke to went through a pre-apprenticeship program this year and expressed interest but said they couldn’t start now because they had children and no childcare. 

Women who go through Local 3’s apprentice program “are excited, eager, want to get in there. Some are nervous and timid. We watch how they’re doing and we try to give them support. They do need a confidence booster every now and then,” Pryor said. 

A new generation of tradespeople needed!

Women represented 10.3 percent of the nationwide construction workforce in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “We have about 10 percent women in our union,” Pryor said.

However, if you look beyond the general construction workforce category in the BLS statistics, a couple of things stand out. One, women’s participation drops considerably in specific trades. For example, 3.8 percent of construction laborers throughout the United States are women. 

Women comprise less than 1 percent of brick, block and stonemasons; 2.3 percent of plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; 5.8 percent of drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers; 8.3 percent of painters and paperhangers; 8.4 percent of construction managers; and 11.9 percent of construction and building inspectors, according to BLS.

And, considering women made up 47 percent of total employment in the U.S. in 2019, they’re way underrepresented in the construction industry. 

Construction workers are in demand right now, just as many older males are getting ready to retire from the trades. “We’re going to need people [read: women] to fill those retirement spots.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research website states, “The COVID crisis has shown how important it is to push for high quality job opportunities for women, as women’s unemployment has skyrocketed and many who remain at work are in female-dominated jobs with low wages and no benefits. Yet, women are still just 3.6 percent of federally registered construction trades apprentices.” 

That might be about to change. Construction workers are in demand right now, just as many older males are getting ready to retire from the trades. “We’re going to need people to fill those retirement spots,” Pryor said.

Douglas pointed out physical fitness is required and believes people best suited for the work are between ages 18 and 50. Older than that, “It will be a little hard but it’s possible. I have graduated two 65-year-old laborers. If you’re over 50, it’s going to be hard, male or female,” Douglas said. “I was 50 when I started as a surveyor and worked another 15 years. I already had 17 years under my belt as a carpenter, so I was in physical condition to do it.”

So, is there a need for women in the construction trades? “Ah, yeah-ah!” Douglas affirmed. “There’s a labor shortage! It’s harder and harder to get the job done. Everyone’s working overtime. In America now, you need to be able to make that kind of money just to survive. Pay your mortgage, feed your children. There’s a lot of money to be made. My son was 7 years old when I started and he went to college and graduated with a nice degree in computer science. He has no college loans. Women need to go to work in construction!”

Why then do so few women consider getting into the trades? “I think it has to do with just getting the word out there,” Pryor said. 

The pathway to prosperity through the trades begins paying off early. “You earn while you learn. You’re not only book learning, you’re practical learning. You do hands-on. That’s how a lot of people learn, by doing,” she said. 

Michelle Leonard-Bell is interim executive director for Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit that helps match the employment needs of San Francisco’s low-income residents with the workforce development needs of local employers. She is among those successfully pushing for Mission Rock’s training and hiring to be women focused.

“Many students have had some type of start with college education, be it at the community college level or a four-year university,” Leonard-Bell said. “College isn’t for everyone. When potential students see the career paths, earning potential, and the fact that they will be paid to learn and become an expert in their trade, it’s an eye-opener that college is not the only option for them.” 

Breaking new ground

On an overcast day in June, in a parking lot where Giants fans used to tailgate before ballgames at nearby Oracle Park, with San Francisco boasting the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any major city in the country, a ceremony was held to belatedly celebrate the April 2020 ground-breaking of Mission Rock. 

Attendees were a diverse group. Hard hats and fluorescent safety vests mingled with suits and professional attire in the mix of local business enterprise owners, developer representatives, members of the local business community and a few City Hall department heads. 

Neighbors of the Giants, who’ve attended countless community meetings and supported the Mission Rock development over the past dozen years were dressed casually; a few wore Giants’ gear. 

The active construction site made a dramatic backdrop to the speeches. Renel Brooks-Moon, public address announcer for the Giants and the event’s emcee, introduced San Francisco Mayor London Breed. As the Mayor was speaking, on the other side of a chain link fence behind the stage, a tall crane lifted a load of what looked like steel beams high off the ground and moved them through midair to where they got set down. 

Some of the affordable units that are being built at Mission Rock “will go to people in this community first. Neighborhood Preference will apply here.”

Breed’s message to the audience was full of promise; the promise of jobs being created for a diverse workforce who’ll be building Mission Rock. The promise of the new housing that’ll be created, including units affordable to families and individuals with low to middle incomes. 

Some of the affordable units that are being built at Mission Rock “will go to people in this community first. Neighborhood Preference will apply here,” Breed said, referring to Neighborhood Resident Housing Preference (NRHP), a lottery program that’s only available in new properties funded by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD). 

In a very real sense, the people being recruited into construction jobs through programs like Mission Rock Academy could possibly be building the home they might one day live in. Breed encouraged builders involved in Mission Rock to get their workers to apply for the housing. “This is how you create an equitable city,” she said. 

In May, the mayor had announced the Women and Families First Initiative, a partnership with OEWD, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Department on the Status of Women (DOSW) and non-profit service providers. It will offer training programs that lead to career opportunities for up to 300 women in a variety of fields, including construction. Targeted outreach to women impacted by the pandemic will be conducted by OEWD Sector Coordinators such as CityBuild.

To support the Women and Families First Initiative, Mayor Breed is proposing to allocate $6 million in her proposed budget for the next two years.

“The Mayor’s Women and Families First Initiative’s goal is to train, support and place 300 women into sustainable employment,” Leonard-Bell said. “The goal of CityBuild and Mission Rock is to train and place at least 30 women if not more into the construction sector.” 

Uplifting enterprise

Later in the ceremony, to illustrate Mission Rock’s workforce diversity, Brooks-Moon called Tana Harris up on stage to talk about the path that led her to start her own business, Harris Hoisting. 

Harris grew up in Oakland and joined the U.S. Army to study finance, thinking she’d become a Certified Public Accountant. After coming back from training in the 1980s, she met an operating engineer who encouraged her to give it a try. “I didn’t think I could do it, but he gave me a chance, and 30 years later, I’m still doing it,” Harris said. 

Harris Hoisting is certified by the City of San Francisco as a Local Business Enterprise (LBE), Women/Minority Owned Business Enterprise (WMBE), Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) and a Micro-Small Business (SB). 

Renel Brooks-Moon, public address announcer, welcomes to the stage Tana Harris of Harris Hoisting at the Mission Rock groundbreaking ceremony. Harris was born and raised in Oakland and for the past 30 years has been running cranes on some of the biggest projects in the Bay, like Central Subway, Salesforce and Chase stadium. – Photo: Bettina Cohen

“We provide the labor for interior elevators, exterior hoist operators, crane operators and equipment operators,” Harris said. “We move material as well as personnel.”

The first time Harris operated a crane on her own was during the replacement of the eastern section of the Bay Bridge, in 2008. 

“I always wanted to start a business,” she said. “After running cranes on some of the big projects – Central Subway, Salesforce, Chase stadium – I knew the hoisting direction was where I wanted to go.”

She incorporated Harris Hoisting in 2015 but didn’t seek a contract for her company right away because she was working on the Salesforce Tower, as an employee of general contractor Clark Construction Group. 

“I was busy, and very excited about being part of Salesforce,” Harris said. The 61-story tower with a decorative crown rises 1,070 feet above the downtown skyline. “I wanted to complete that project. I put other things on hold.” 

However, she notified Clark of her wishes to launch Harris Hoisting. After the Salesforce Tower was completed in 2018, Harris initially worked as a crane foreman on the Chase Center. Clark was also the lead contractor for the new Golden State Warriors’ basketball arena, office, restaurant and retail complex. 

Pay varies from roughly $37 to $55 per hour.

Within the year, Clark subcontracted some of the work to her under Harris Hoisting. “Clark Construction took me by the hand and helped me get started,” she said. 

Harris owns a couple of cranes. One is a Magni Telescopic Handler, or Magni Telehandler for short. It can lift 6.5 tons. The other is a 2021 boom truck crane that has a 19-ton lifting capacity.

“I definitely employ women,” Harris said. “Currently, we have 12 employees – six women and six guys. We provide operators from the Local 3 Operators Union.” 

Pay varies from roughly $37 to $55 per hour.

Different route to a related career

In the audience when Tana Harris was called up on stage to talk about her hoisting company was Amiriana Sinegal, a young woman planning to go into real estate development, a field that works hand in glove with the construction industry.

The Construction Industry and Workforce Initiative (CIWI) is a young adult program targeted to students between 18 and, plus or minus, 21 years of age, who are enrolled in a two- to four-year college program. To date, CIWI has delivered over 100 internships, the vast majority to first generation college students, 100 percent to students of color, with great equity between young women and men.

Monica Wilson, program manager and founding member of CIWI, explained that the internships offer a different inroad to a future career than the pre-apprenticeship programs. 

“There’s a huge difference,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to create the next generation of project managers, developers, architects.” 

Wilson introduced this reporter to Sinegal, an 18-year-old CIWI intern who grew up in the Sunnydale housing projects and had just graduated from Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in Visitacion Valley when she attended the Mission Rock ceremony in June. 

Mission Bay South Block 9A will be a 100 percent below-market-rate project and a rare homeownership opportunity for qualifying middle-income families.

We spoke in August, on the day Sinegal completed her internship and was preparing to become the first in her family to attend college. She has just started a two-year Business Administration course at San Francisco State University. Her tuition will be mostly covered by scholarships and financial aid.

For her internship, “I was assigned to the Block 9A team with Charmaine Curtis, Michael Simmons and YCD,” Sinegal said. 

A long block south of where the Mission Rock ceremony was held, two affordable housing projects in the pipeline are among the last remaining sites either presently or soon-to-be under construction in the Mission Bay redevelopment area, which is overseen by the San Francisco Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (OCII). Sinegal’s internship this summer took place with the development team bringing one of those projects to fruition. 

Mission Bay South Block 9A will be a 100 percent below-market-rate project featuring 148 condominium units in an eight-story building. When completed, the address will be 350 China Basin St. and it’ll be a rare homeownership opportunity for qualifying middle-income families. 

Equally significant, the project is a rare instance of an all-Black developer team developing a relatively large project in San Francisco. The partnership consists of Mission Bay 9A LLC, a subsidiary of Curtis Development, Michael Simmons Property Development, Inc (MSPDI) and Young Community Developers (YCD), a Bayview-based nonprofit. 

Charmaine Curtis is the principal of Curtis Development. Her company specializes in third-party development management services for all phases of project development including site acquisition, entitlements, scheduling, budgeting, consultant and contractor selection and oversight, design management, permitting and construction management, in addition to developing projects for the company’s own account.

Ground-breaking on Block 9A is expected in April 2022. It’s now in the design stage. Schematic illustrations have been drawn, but it takes a bit of imagination to envision how the drawings will translate into an actual building one day, on what’s currently an undeveloped lot. 

During her internship, Sinegal learned about the design process, working with contractors, and earned roughly $900 entering data into an Excel spreadsheet during meetings with the team on Thursdays. While sitting in on the discussions with the developers, she improved her Excel skills, which are essential for anyone who wants to be a real estate developer. 

“They use Excel sheets. That’s how you keep everything organized and intact,” Sinegal said. The internship also covered marketing, finance, budgets, resume and cover letter writing, tours of the Mission Rock project site and FactoryOS on Mare Island and understanding the world of development.

The prospect of helping folks solve their housing problems is what attracted her to the CIWI internship and “just knowing that I can teach other people financial literacy, and teach the youth about owning a home,” Sinegal said. She plans to maintain contact with mentors such as Wilson, who she met in her CIWI internship, as she studies for her college degree.

Women in a male-dominated workplace 

The subject of sexual harassment in the workplace came up in these interviews. “It’s gotten a lot better as far as the harassment went,” Douglas said. “The harassment out there now isn’t as massive and bad. It just doesn’t happen anywhere near as it did before. 

“Number one, the union is behind you. The union was always behind you. It was just a matter of having the courage to ask for help. That’s something I teach, especially in the women’s group. I teach them how to ask for help.”

Regarding the historical white-male domination of construction trades for the new generation of tradespeople coming in, “My personal opinion is I think it’s harder for Black males than it is for women,” Douglas said.

“A lot of the men are allies,” Pryor said. “They help you. They ask, what do you need me to do?” 

“Things are changing,” Harris said. “The guys are glad to see us come in and they’re actually encouraging us to come into the fold and helping us do the things we do. Pick up something heavy – they’ll help. No questions on why you’re here. 

“Things are changing. You see more women and men of color, and that’s a great thing.” Harris wants to “get the message out to all the young ladies that they can do these jobs.” 

Bettina Cohen is an independent journalist and community reporter covering local news in San Francisco. She can be contacted at bettina.cohen@sonic.net.