California plan will help low-income women train for construction jobs

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She likes to say that she slept through the last 13 years of her life, and indeed, much of it is a blur: Abusive relationship. His-and-her arrests for domestic violence. Meth habit. A period of quasi-homelessness. A 37-day stint in jail for petty theft.

Now, at 38, Sandra Alvarez says she is awake — and duly awoken, she is aiming for a massive do-over: She's newly sober. And most importantly, she's got career aspirations: She wants to work in construction.

"The first time I went on a construction site, I felt some kind of power," said Alvarez, tattooed with a swath of dark, wavy hair. "It's weird, but I felt like I belonged."

But the construction field is a hard one to crack, particularly if you're female. Women comprise less than 3% of the trade workforce, roughly the same portion as 30 years ago. The barriers are many. Sexism is a given — like the foreman who told Alvarez he didn't need her help on his job site, but sure could use her help in the bedroom.

So Alvarez is hanging her hopes on a state-funded "pre-apprenticeship" program in California, where she is learning the basics of the industry, from blueprints and construction math to job safety.

The goal: to land a highly coveted apprenticeship that will lead to a good-paying union job.

More women might soon be able to take advantage of similar programs.

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Sandra Alvarez takes a break after her all-day pre-apprenticeship class in San Jose, California. She's hoping the class will launch her career in construction.

States are faced with an aging infrastructure and an aging workforce. And just when the country is considering mammoth investments to repair roads, bridges and highways, there's a shortage of skilled trades workers. California's new Road Repair and Accountability Act aims to tackle both problems.

Mostly, it's an ambitious, $50 billion, 10-year building program that uses a gas tax increase to fund road repairs, bridge maintenance and public transit. But the law also includes an unusual provision: a $25 million investment to get more women like Alvarez into pre-apprenticeships.

The idea is to help disadvantaged Californians get accepted into trade apprenticeship schools — and in so doing, reduce the number of people receiving public assistance.

Related: The US needs to do a better job training its workers

"A lot of women shy away from construction because of the work environment," said Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall, the primary sponsor of the legislation. "We're trying to change that good ol' boy, business as usual, construction culture."

Breaking into the industry means combating stereotypes that construction is men's work. Traditionally, construction newbies enter the industry through a state-regulated apprenticeship: Apprentices earn as they learn, laboring under the mentorship of seasoned professionals, with some supplementary classroom instruction. Apprentices can join a union, getting a bump in salary as they complete each level of their training.

But getting into these programs can be tricky, and often entail long waiting lists. Pre-apprenticeships can help fill that void, because classes are devised with input from local trades unions.

The current pre-apprenticeship initiative builds on earlier efforts following President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus plan and a 2014 California program for the clean-energy industry, said Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Development Board.

"You have to be intentional about bringing women into the industry," said Meg Vasey executive director of Tradeswomen, Inc., an Oakland-based training and advocacy group. "Otherwise, they're going to hire the one-armed, one-eyed, ex-offender male before they hire a woman."

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Sara Glascock, an electrician's apprentice, stands at her job site at the San Francisco International Airport. For women, breaking into construction can be tough. "Pre-apprenticeships" can give them an extra edge.

Rising Sun

As a means to hire more women and underserved Californians, construction jobs make sense for a lot of reasons. You don't need a college career to earn a good living: Experienced tradespeople can make between $25 and $50 an hour.

For people who have taken a few detours on their career trajectory, construction can be quite forgiving, said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director at California's State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.

To qualify, participants need a GED or high school diploma and proof that they're eligible to work in the United States. A driver's license is recommended.

At the Rising Sun Energy Center in Berkeley, instructor Ester Sandoval paces the packed room. It's an all-women's class, where women take field trips to job sites, brush up on their math skills, and work out with a trainer so they'll be strong enough to haul gear. They also learn how to cope in a male-dominated industry: how to deal with bullying and the art of the snappy comeback.

Related: The opioid crisis is draining America's workforce

The students, a variety of ages and colors, hunker down, all furrowed focus.

Sandoval is part cheerleader, part drill sergeant, pushing the women, urging them to speak up, "raise your voice through your core."

"Fake it 'til you make it," Sandoval tells them.

Bigger in California

Several other states -- among them Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and West Virginia -- have used pre-apprenticeship programs to launch women into careers in construction, cobbling together funding from a variety of sources. Maine was one of the first states to tie public works funding with recruiting women to work in construction.

In 1994, the Maine Department of Transportation used a $157 million bridge replacement project as an opportunity to create a more "women-friendly" work environment, even offering on-site child care.

But California's plan is unusual in its size and scope. It employs a multi-curriculum approach, exposing students to a variety of trades, from metalworking to pipe fitting to plumbing, and it requires that the programs work directly with local unions.

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"This is part of a trend to make sure that as we invest in roads and transportation, that we're using those public dollars to end those inequities that have shut women out," said Lauren Sugerman, national policy director of Chicago Women in Trades, an advocacy and training group.

Alvarez, who sometimes works as a day laborer at construction sites, said many of the men in her life don't take her seriously.

But ever since she worked in a hardware store as a teen, she's been fascinated with building things. This is where she belongs.

"I want to run stuff," she said. "This is my calling."

The Pew Charitable Trusts funds both the Pew Research Center and Stateline.

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