OREGON TRADESWOMEN INC. IS BUSY TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION OF WOMEN TO BECOME LEADERS IN THE SKILLED CONSTRUCTION TRADES
Michell Perez has worked a laundry list of jobs over the years.
At 12, she helped her aunt during the summers in the agricultural field. She eventually went on to positions as a caregiver and her current role as a warehouse lead. However, she never felt she had found a job that felt like a pathway to a promising career — until now.
As the summer ended, Perez was just a few weeks away from finishing up an eight-week pre-apprenticeship program offered by Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. She was part of just the second group of students to tackle the program in a new space that OTI moved into in Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood in early 2020. The program and OTI are so highly regarded in Oregon’s construction industry that Perez knew, even before she graduated, that she would leave the program and have automatic entry into an apprenticeship program that would lead to her dream of becoming a journeyman in the skilled construction trades.
OTI’s reputation isn’t just based on its work helping women connect with high-paying, rewarding careers in the construction trades. The organization is also known for providing ongoing support to tradeswomen throughout their careers and working to change systems and support policies to turn the construction industry away from a good-old-boy mentality to one that supports diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The organization’s work in all of those areas has never been more important.
Before the pandemic, the construction industry was already struggling with a shortage of skilled labor and an image of being less-than-hospitable to women and people of color. However, in the past 18 months, the lack of available, highly-trained construction workers has increased, along with some publicized incidents of racism on Portland projects.
While falling short of workers skilled in the trades can hamper large construction companies, they can usually work around the situation. Smaller firms, however, have narrower profit margins and fewer workaround options. So without enough workers, they may find themselves having to turn down work — and profits. That’s why an important element of OTI’s work is helping small construction companies understand how creating safe and supportive work environments free of harassment, bullying and discrimination can help them build what Executive Director Kelley Kupcak calls a “core crew.”
“We tell contractors all the time, if you can have a core crew — meaning that crew stays with you and goes with you from job to job — you’re going to be way more successful,” Kupcak said. “When you’re talking about commercial construction, you think about tradeworkers going from big company to company to big company to big company over the course of their career. But the reality is, a lot of our graduates go to smaller companies, minority- and women-owned companies that are very family-focused, and they end up staying with them a lot longer. “
Michell Perez, part of Oregon Tradeswomen’s most recent pre-apprenticeship class, works on a toolbox. The class prepares women to move in skilled trade apprenticeships in construction through a mix of education and hands-on experience. STEPHANIE BASALYGA/PMG
Oregon Tradeswomen by the Numbers
100% of program participants identify as female
73% of program participants come from lowincome households
53% of program participants identify as Black, Indigenous or other People of Color
28% of program participants are heads of single-parent households
15% of program participants have been justice involved or formerly incarcerated.
3% of program participants are military veterans.
FINDING THE PERFECT FIT
While tradeswomen tend to be few and far between on construction projects in 2021, it was even more uncommon back in the 1980s when OTI got its start. The group, started by four Portland-area tradeswomen who wanted to create a network of support, was based on a similar group that one of the women had learned about while attending a national conference.
From those first few members, OTI grew. Under the leadership of co-founder Connie Ashbrook as executive director, OTI moved from a home-based operation to its first home in a cramped space on Alberta Street. Eight years later, in 2010, it moved to a commercial building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Portland. At just under 5,000 square feet, the space was larger, but it still didn’t have enough room to accommodate the hands-on classes that Ashbrook and her team felt were critical to prepare women to step into apprenticeships ready to succeed. As a workaround, OTI coordinated with partners, from construction companies to local unions, to hold training classes at different locations.
With an eye toward helping more women connect with careers in construction and other “alternative” jobs such as firefighting and law enforcement, OTI started holding an annual Careers in the Trades Fair. The annual event allowed attendees to meet and talk with women working in the trades and try different activities, from building birdhouses to climbing a ladder on a firetruck to scaling a pole under the guidance of a linewoman. In addition to a day for the general public, OTI offered two days geared toward girls in area middle and high schools. A full roster of educational classes and training courses were developed, and OTI’s staff grew until it filled the building the organization was leasing. The organization established an increasing presence as a partner and adviser to help construction companies as they worked to change old stereotypes and address racism and discrimination to create safer, more inclusive project sites.
As Ashbrook retired and Kupcak stepped in as the organization’s new executive director, it became clear that OTI had outgrown its space. With OIT’s lease almost up, Kupcak and her team began looking at other locations for OTI. But the mission felt virtually impossible.
“We had been looking for a year,” Kupcak said. “(The places we found) either needed tons and tons of work or were really beautiful but not in our price range. And we were almost ready to throw in the towel, except we’re a feisty feminist organization. So we were like, ‘We can’t give up.’”
Then Kupcak received an unexpected call from a Portland-area developer named Roy Kim. He wanted to talk with her about a project his company was developing in Gresham called Rockwood Rising.
TOP: Brenda “Charlie” Gaynor, center, a trainer with Oregon Tradeswomen, explains to pre-apprenticeship students the steps for a hands-on project.
BOTTOM: In addition to educational sessions, OTI’s pre-apprenticeship program includes hands-on skills training.
PHOTOS: STEPHANIE BASALYGA/PMG
A NEW HOPE, A NEW HOME
The Rockwood neighborhood in Gresham is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Portland metro area, with more than 60 languages spoken by residents. Unfortunately, it’s also marked by one of the highest poverty rates in the state. Affordable housing and living-wage jobs have been in short supply. Over the years, businesses in the area closed up and moved out, citing high crime rates as one of the main factors in their decision.
In a strange twist, although the area became known as a “food desert” and chain supermarkets left the area, it was the decision by one of those grocers, Fred Meyer, to shut down operations on a 5.5-acre site in the heart of the Rockwood that now has brought the promise of a brighter future for the neighborhood and its diverse residents.
The City of Gresham purchased the vacant property in 2005 after Fred Meyer left the area and began meeting with community organizations and area residents to figure out ways to develop the site into a game-changer for the community and the people living there.
The result was Rockwood Rising, a mixed-use development containing 100 mixed-income apartments, offices, online retailers and commercial spaces. With an eye toward serving as an “economic engine” to eliminate poverty and drive the area toward greater prosperity, Rockwood Rising will also offer job training and entrepreneurship opportunities. A diverse mix of local food micro-entrepreneurs will be selected as vendors for a Market Hall. On-site training programs will provide job training for local residents, paving the way for them to move into living-wage careers in industries ranging from manufacturing to construction to foodservice. And that was where Kim, whose Central Bethany Development Co. is overseeing the development of the Rockwood project through its RKm Development arm, felt OTI would be a perfect fit.
In addition to the main site where the majority of the Rockwood development is rising, Kim’s company was tasked with breathing new life into a smaller nearby building that Fred Meyer had used to house its gardening and hardware departments. At some point, after Fred Meyer vacated the property, the building had been divided into spaces for four different tenants. By the time Kupcak took Kim up on his offer of a building tour, it had been completely gutted. However, Kupcak could see the potential and how the building might work for OTI and its programs.
Kupcak became even more convinced that OTI might have found a home as Kim shared his vision for Rockwood Rising and why he felt it was important for the development to include workforce development elements and entrepreneurial opportunities. She felt OTI needed to be in Rockwood for the very same reasons.
“(OTI) wanted to be in a community that would benefit from a workforce development agency,” Kupcak told Opportunity magazine. “There are others that are here doing really good work in the community. We’re not the first, but when we looked around at the community, the demographics, there are a lot of folks in this community who are young and smart and eager for an exciting and dynamic career and there’s not a lot of folks with college degrees here. So there’s an opportunity to talk about registered apprenticeship as the ‘other four-year degree,’ as we sometimes refer to it. There’s a lot changing (in Rockwood), and there’s a lot of intentionality in this community with other nonprofits around equity. We wanted to be a part of that. And also, secretly, I was super excited about the (food incubator) that Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) is going to be here with job training opportunities.”
Making the building even harder to turn down: in addition to covering up to $1 million cost for tenant improvements, Kim connected the organization with an architectural firm to help them design their dream location.
“We didn’t have to put one penny into the improvements,” Kupcak said.
“We basically started with a raw floor plan, and they worked with us, all the way to them asking us, when they exposed the beams up above, ‘Do you want to put ceiling tiles up?’’” Lisa Palermo, OTI’s development director, added.
“They let our team completely design the space,” Mary Ann Naylor, OTI’s communications and marketing director said. “We picked the carpets. We picked the colors, the configuration.”
A STREET PRESENCE
The configuration OTI settled on included a wish-list of features to help OTI improve its students’ training experience and connect with the Rockwood community.
At nearly 9,500 square feet, the new location isn’t just nearly double the size of OTI’s previous location, it also contains a noticeable addition — a large workshop space in the rear of the building where students work on projects, from building an entire wall from the ground up to working on upscale chicken coops that are sold to help raise money for OTI’s programs.
“The primary benefit of having our own workshop is that the training that the women get is consistent class to class,” Palermo said. “When we used to have to train out in the community with community projects, each project was required different skills, so each group of graduates had different skills. The reason that (consistency) is so important is that now, the union apprenticeship employers know what skills our graduates come with, and subsequently, a lot of them now are offering direct entry, which is huge.
“The other thing it’s done, it’s created a lot of efficiencies for us internally because trying to coordinate those external projects was a huge drain on staff time because they would get canceled and changed.”
The large on-site workshop space also means partners can come in to provide training sessions. Previously, while partners were always open to hosting OTI classes at their sites, it was often a passive experience for students.
“Now, our partners are coming here to do some of that training, which is super because our students get exposed more directly to the trades,” Palermo said. “They get to talk with somebody while they’re working side-by-side with them, maybe learn about job openings.”
That contact also is improving student placement once they finish the pre-apprenticeship program. Partners have a chance to work side-by-side with students. Sometimes that work results in the partners singling students for their programs, according to Palermo.
“Having the partners come in, I’ve watched them interact with the students and it’s so heartwarming because they’re with them working hands-on, and they’re chit-chatting while they’re doing it,” she said. “I’ll hear the questions they’re asking and I know these are questions they might not be comfortable asking in a field-trip setting where someone is doing a presentation.”
Palermo says the workshop also offers an opportunity to collaborate with the Gresham community. When OTI students aren’t training in the workshop area, for example, there’s the potential to provide the space to local high schools, other nonprofits and community groups. Another room serving as a classroom features a roll-up door that will allow that space to be used by the community for events and gatherings.
A strong street presence will likely also help OTI connect with the community.
The location near a MAX light-rail stop offers easy access for students and is within sight of the oversized cutouts of female construction workers that fill the windows along the front and one side of the building. The women featured are women who have graduated from OTI’s pre-apprenticeship program and have since started careers as apprentices.
“Moving here was very intentional,” Palermo said. “We’re right on the MAX (light rail) line. There’s a lot of foot traffic. Even if people aren’t coming here as a destination, people coming off the MAX see what we do. It opens up opportunities for people. I watch people with little girls walking by, and I’m thinking that one simple interaction of this little girl walking by these windows and staring up at these women may open up her mind to a possibility that she would never have thought of otherwise.”
Michell Perez understands how OTI can offer a door to a world of previously unknown opportunities. At one point before she became a caregiver, she spent a couple of years going demolition work.
“I really loved that it,” Perez recalled. “It was a job I looked forward to going to every day. I really wanted to get back into construction. That’s the only job I ever had that I enjoyed doing.”
When she started the pre-apprenticeship program at OTI, she thought she might want to become an electrician. But through the program and the hands-on work of learning how to build an actual wall, from framing to installing wiring to adding sheetrock, Perez has had a chance to try a little bit of every trade. The experience led her to realize to add sprinkler fitter as a possible path.
“They teach us a little bit of everything, and that’s what I really like about it. We get to learn what a day in the life of every trade is like,” Perez said. “Honestly, I didn’t even know being a sprinkler fitter was a trade.”
OTI’s trainers in the program don’t just prepare the women enrolled for the skills they’ll need. They also talk with them about what it’s like to be sometimes the only one or two women working own a constructions site. Perez appreciates the honesty, but she also knows that if she runs into any issues, OTI will be there to help support her.
“They know the downside of being a woman in the construction trade, and they don’t really sugar coat it. They also make sure we know we won’t be alone out there. We can keep in contact with (OTI) if we face any discrimination or racism. I feel really fortunate. It changed my life in that I now know what I went to do and I’m confident of any trade that I choose because I have the right training. And I’m glad I’m not alone.”