YOUnion_NY: Kandice, Local 28 Sheet Metal Worker

Susan Kaplan


Initially, I had intentions of becoming an architect and got a bachelor’s degree in architecture. Unfortunately, I graduated during the great recession. I searched for about a year and a half, but there were no jobs. At some point, my best friend’s father, who is in Local 28, told me that his company was looking for somebody to step in as a building information modeling coordinator. A lot of the jobs are doing 3D coordination, which is when all the building trades on a project see the job in 3D and coordinate with each other to avoid clashes. It was my job to manage the files and create class clash reports for them. I think I was there for maybe a year and a half when the owners said, "Why don't you apply to the union?" I took their advice and I applied. At the time, all of the trades were looking to hire women. I was called in, applied, took the test, and I got placed. I was in classes in and out on the field with tools within a year. |

The apprenticeship program was five years long. I graduated about two and a half years ago, so I’ve been in the trade for about seven and a half years. In my trade, we design, fabricate, and install the duct work. I currently do the design work. I did about six to eight months pre-apprentice, which is when they expose you to all of the aspects of their trade in the school. They explain to you what you're going to get into and that's the period where you kind of decide if this trade is the right fit for you. After that, they place you with a contractor. It was just an all-around great learning experience and worked out perfectly. I met people from so many different trades.

You don't know if you like something until you try it, especially if you have no idea what it is. Construction is something that anybody can do. I’m five feet tall and I weighed 86 pounds when I started this. I was skin and bones. I'm still skin and bones, but I was able to go out there and work. The guys were so great, they were so willing to help me and teach me the right way to do the job. I would just say give it a try. Look up what the trades do and you might be surprised. You can do something that you may have never thought of. I think it’s important to educate the community and just letting them know that this career is out there, because I really had no idea.

If a young woman has heard about the building trades and is thinking about joining this career, I would suggest that she go through some of the programs that are geared towards helping women get into the trades. There is a program in the city called NEW, Nontraditional Employment for Women and they expose women to all the different building trades and give them an overview of the whole process. Let's say they're hesitant and don't know if they can do construction, I would just kind of use myself as an example. I'm small, but I still do it. If you're not afraid of hard work and getting dirty, then there's no reason why you can't do this.

I would have to say that a great benefit is financial stability. After graduating college, I had a lot of student loan debt, I needed a job, and I needed to pay for that. The union was definitely able to provide that along with health care. The added benefits actually helped me purchase my house. So being able to have money that I'm able to access has helped me do things in my life that I may not have been able to do prior to coming here. In the building trades we get paid the same. There's no gap in wages. Everybody gets paid the same from day one, and we're all treated the same as workers. So, that's one thing that I appreciate about this and I would like that opportunity to be for other women as well.

I think I got lucky by being in a company that had a lot of younger guys who didn't hold the same prejudice or negativity towards women. All around, throughout my entire apprenticeship, I was treated with respect. I think that it also helped that I went to work every day just hungry for knowledge and always seeking out knowledge instead of just sitting there and letting everybody do everything for me.

I think the biggest challenges in my career so far was people not allowing me to progress. There was one foreman that didn't really allow me to work and would give me the simple jobs, but I was vocal about it. I took it for a little while, but at some point, I was like, "This isn't how it's supposed to go. I'm here to learn.” I finagled my way by asking questions and being inquisitive. I made it my mission to be the ears of the job. So, if you're a lady on the job and you feel like they're holding you back, don't let them. Find a way. Use your knowledge to get ahead. I used the tools that I have to make it work for myself.

When you're in the apprenticeship program, you have a nice cushion. You're basically guaranteed work for five years because the trade school can place you with contractors. But in those five years, you need to be able to learn the skills to survive without that buffer. There's a lot of women who unfortunately don't speak up when they’re not properly trained, and they just sit there and they take it. Then they come out of the apprenticeship, they're limited in their skill, and they find it hard to stay employed. Then what happens? They leave the trade because they can't find work. Those have really been my biggest challenges. Like I said, I've been lucky. I haven't experienced harassment, or blatant sexism, or disrespect. I think I just so happened to come in at a time when the mentality has finally started to shift. There are still a few dinosaurs out there who think that women shouldn't be here, but it's too late now, because we're here and we're not going anywhere.

I like that my job is very challenging. You're always working with different groups of people, different types of personalities, and you're trying to solve a puzzle all day. I like that it keeps my mind busy, and coming from an architectural background, it's just a perfect combination of just the structure of drawing and this constant ticking of my mind. When I was in the field, I just loved working with all the different personalities and trades. It's the people and the challenges that make the job enjoyable. I challenge myself every day in the field. Even if I felt like I couldn't do something, I tried it, and I made sure I really couldn't do it before I asked for help. You can't just accept help right away; you have to try it. Otherwise, you don't know if you can do it. I just gave it a 100% every day.

I think the biggest myth about union workers is that we get paid to do a lot of nothing, and I would have to completely dispel that. And as a member of the building trades, we take pride in how we do our work. I think that's the biggest distinguisher of us between anybody else, that we care about how the job was done. I put in an honest day's work every day and I give it 100% every day. Sometimes it's freezing outside or it's boiling hot, but we still get out there and do it regardless. We try to do the right job the first time. Instead of you paying double, you paid us that one set rate, and it's done right. People think that the building trades is just mechanical, that you get out there and just knock tin all day. But it's not. Even in the field, you got to think on your toes because conditions can change really quickly

I hope that 10 years from now I’m still here and that I am able to start a business of my own using the tools that I've learned in the trade. I really enjoy being a sketcher and working with all the different building trades and different design teams. I want to be one of the women who actually finish and go through to retirement because we only have a few of those right now. I'm hoping that that number grows over the years.

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A photography project of Workforce Development Institute - Shining a spotlight on women emerging in the union workforce.