NAWIC’s Women in Construction Week celebrates women’s achievements across the construction industry. At the local level, Milwaukee’s contractors and trades are partnering to host career fairs and networking events and share resources and mentorship opportunities.

Sisterhood is a crucial aspect of retention in this industry and as the saying goes, empowered women empower women. Milwaukee-based women’s group, EmpowHER, supports a changing construction industry by helping women to navigate their role on the job site, their path to leadership and the transition that will take place in the industry as more women continue to fill ‘seats at the table’. In early 2019 the group had its first meeting under the leadership of several tradeswomen and construction professionals. Since then, the organization has quickly grown to include Southcentral and Northeastern chapters.

If you’re interested in moving forward with a career in construction, inquire with our form, or join EmpowHER’s Facebook Group, and get connected with women construction professionals.

This week also promotes representation in the field, so that career seekers can see tradeswomen in action. Hear from local women in construction as they share their experiences and advice for those interested in a career in construction.

Advice from Women in Construction

Kilah Engelke  |  OPCMIA Local 599 Area 558 Business Agent

Describe your current role/what kinds of things you do in a day: My role includes connecting our members to contractors and contractors to members, enforcing our local’s jurisdiction and contract, negotiating contracts, ensuring a safe and productive workplace and workforce, organizing (finding new members) and understanding the work and the membership to the point where I can perform all of my duties successfully.

Where do you see yourself in your career in the future? In the future, I’d like to continue to grow in my role as a leader in my local area and as a part of empowHER.  I’d like to be a part of impacting an increase in the number of women in the industry, and especially in the OPCMIA.

Which union are you in and what is the best part of being in a union? OPCMIA Local 599, The best aspect of being a part of the Union is having consistent representation and benefits no matter where I work, meaning at whatever contractor or wherever in the country I go.

Why did you choose a career in construction? I was put on a crew to pay for school. I never thought this would turn into a career. The more I got into it and learned about my craft, the more I loved it and wanted to continue and grow within the industry.

What is your favorite aspect of your career? The pride I feel for the work that I’ve done is huge. The camaraderie is also an incredible benefit – some of the people I know from work are my best friends and they will always be so important to me in my life.

What is your most memorable moment working in construction? Winning my election for Business Agent is probably my best memory and greatest accomplishment so far, as I won a landslide election based on my members having respect and appreciation for me.  It was the best feeling ever.

What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on? Mitchell International Airport runways. To this day, I still get to take off and land on the runway I built.

What is the biggest challenge of being a woman working in construction? I would say the biggest challenges are in your mind. Some women (and men) think that they’re underqualified or out of place, when in fact that’s not true at all.

What advice would you give to a woman starting her apprenticeship? Keep your body in good shape, focus on becoming a quality craftsperson, find a mentor, learn little bits from anyone that you can and appreciate what you’re learning by being diligent about correcting things you can correct and by contributing what you can when you can – even if that means taking note of what not to do.  Don’t say no to trying new things and learning new things.  Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone because the best things come from outside of your comfort zones and growth happens outside of your comfort zone!

What else should someone to know about this career path? Be a friend to other women in the industry with whom you cross paths. They can turn out to be your best allies and some of the most powerful connections you will develop.

Michele Robinson  |  Journeyman Wireman & Apprenticeship Training Instructor

Describe your current role/what kinds of things you do in a day: Currently, I am working on the fire alarm system at Ascent which is the tallest timber structure in North America. On a daily basis, I have a cart with my tools and material and work from apartment to apartment until the floor is complete. I am also an apprenticeship instructor, therefore each semester for one to two nights a week I instruct the upcoming apprentices.

Where do you see yourself in your career in the future? I see myself retiring out of the field. I enjoy the work and still feel challenged. Outside of work, I truly enjoy reaching out to young women and hope to continue to have an active role in recruiting and retaining women to the trades.

Which union are you in and what is the best part of being in a union? I belong to IBEW 494. Our union is incredibly supportive of its membership and is active in the community.

Why did you choose a career in construction? I wanted to build, not be at a desk, and mostly I thought it would be fun.

What is your favorite aspect of your career? Whenever I drive around the city, I take credit for the buildings I helped build or the rooftops I have pictures from. The level of ownership, belonging, and pride I have from working in the city and having a literal hand in the skyline is second to none.

What is your most memorable moment working in construction? There are tons of stories in construction! Workers can stand around after work in their cars and talk shop and compare stories for hours. The moment that stays with me the most is when 5 or 6 of us had to flip a large light over the side of a building at 5am. I worked for a smaller company so you would rarely have so many journeymen together at one time, but the light was very long and it needed to be carefully flipped. The team work required and the fun surrounding the seriousness is exactly why I enjoy what I do.

What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on? I had the privilege to work on three Milwaukee Public Library remodels. My favorite job as a teen was a circulation aid at the downtown branch. The North Ave library was the first and it felt like a full circle experience for me. 

What is the biggest challenge of being a woman working in construction? No one likes porta-potties and in the beginning, I found it very difficult.

What advice would you give to a woman starting her apprenticeship? Keep your head up and ask what you need to know. A big part of being a journeyman is answering questions, so they’re there to answer your questions. 

Tracey Griffith  |  Director of Outreach & Partnerships for Walbec Group

Describe your current role/what kinds of things you do in a day: My activities change day to day. I represent our company on various committees that are tied to workforce development and committees that impact economic development. So one day, I may be sitting in a room with labor/management collaborating on different initiatives, and the next I may be recruiting candidates for our company, or developing strategies with school districts and other entities on educating students on the great opportunities of apprenticeship and the opportunities that exist within Walbec Group. Every day, I have to be ready to wear a different hat and have new conversations that manifest results.

Where do you see yourself in your career in the future? I see myself as continuing to be an advocate for women and using my voice for the times they feel powerless. I envision continuing developing strategies to recruit, train, and retain females in the construction industry and making an impact on my company.

What is your favorite aspect of your career? I love working for a company that values diversity and promotes growth and leadership for its workforce. Being able to develop strategies to increase diversity within our company and to be supported in those efforts is so important to me in my professional career. Being able to take my passion for connecting with diverse candidates and having that passion align with the core values of our company is a great combination.

What advice would you give to a woman starting her apprenticeship?  I would tell her that showing up each day with a good attitude and with a willingness to work and learn everyday is half the battle. I would also recommend that she connect herself to a women’s group like empowHER, or at Walbec Group, we have WOW (Women of Walbec), which is a way for women to connect with other women throughout our family of companies. Staying connected to other women and building a support group is a way to be proactive in addressing any challenges that may come up as she navigates her apprenticeship in the construction industry.

Please feel free to share anything else that you would want someone to know about this career path?  Don’t let anyone define your path; It is never too late to be who you want to be.  Educate yourself, surround yourself with those who will  support you, and when you reach your goal-whether it be journeyworker status, Superintendent, or Project Manager-reach back and hold your hand out to the next woman who is trying to get where you are. This is how we will change and impact the construction industry.

Kaylah Antczak  |  3rd Year Carpenter Apprentice

Describe your current role/what kinds of things you do in a day: I am a 3rd year carpenter apprentice and I work for a general contractor that does everything from rough to finish carpentry. This could range and be anything from framing walls and hanging drywall to doing trim work and hanging cabinets. My current role right now is cutting and installing base trim in apartments.

Where do you see yourself in your career in the future? I would love the opportunity to become a superintendent and run jobs in the future. I would also like to continue to help women get into the trades.

Which union are you in and what is the best part of being in a union? I am in the Carpenters Union Local 344. There are so many pros to being in a union, but I think the best part is the support you get from everyone around you. Everyone is there to help you at all times with any questions or concerns you may have. The union will always have your back.

Why did you choose a career in construction? I chose construction because I knew I wanted to do something more physically challenging/demanding.

What is your favorite aspect of your career? My favorite aspect is being challenged either physically or mentally every day. The work is constantly upgrading with new technology or ways of doing things and there is always something new to learn.

What is your most memorable moment working in construction? My most memorable moment so far was when I was working outside of a high school and one of the teachers had noticed me and was inspired by my work and ended up writing an article about me to the school.

What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on? Right now, I am at a project where we are remodeling an apartment building downtown. I have been there from the start when we did all the demo, to now doing all the finish work which has been very rewarding to see it all start to come together.

What is the biggest challenge of being a woman working in construction? Having to prove to people that women do belong working construction, that we can do and keep up with what everyone else can do.

What advice would you give to a woman starting her apprenticeship? Do not be discouraged about what anyone says or thinks, stick with it! Everything is worth it and is so rewarding!

Rebecca Schloer  |  Senior Project Manager at Miron Construction

Describe your current role/what kinds of things you do in a day:  I lead clients through all phases of a construction project, from initial budget to occupancy. During the construction process I am responsible for maintaining the budget, schedule, compliance with the Construction Documents and safety.

Why did you choose a career in construction? I have a degree in Civil Engineering and did survey and construction inspection work early in my career. After spending time on construction sites, I realized I was much better suited to this kind of work.

What is your favorite aspect of your career? Seeing a building go from a drawing on a piece of paper to a completed facility. At the end of a project, it is amazing to think about how many people are involved to make a building a reality.

What is the biggest challenge of being a woman working in construction? The biggest challenge is not specific to being a woman; in any industry it can be a challenge to gain credibility and understand the industry. Any young person entering a field should take time to ask as many questions as possible and learn from those who are more experienced.

What advice would you give to a woman starting out in the construction industry? Take opportunities to become familiar with the different roles and career options in the construction industry. Miron has a yearly day long program for 7-10th grade girls called Build Like a Girl which educates young women on their options and the advantages of a career in construction.  There are excellent jobs available in construction that are high paying and that have great benefits.