May 2022

Franklin County program graduates first all-women class learning construction skills

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Micah Walker
May 22, 2022

Courtney Grisby and Cynthia Hard sat side by side in the basement of Teamsters Local 413 earlier this month, anticipating a moment they had been working toward for months: graduation.

When her name was called, Grisby headed to the front of the room — all smiles — as people in the packed Downtown union hall applauded and she was handed a certificate in construction from Building Futures, a 12-week program that teaches construction skills and safety training to underserved communities.

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What made this moment particularly sweet wasn’t just that Grisby and Hard were now officially considered prepared for a building trades apprenticeship. It’s that they and their nine fellow graduates were all women — a first for the Franklin County program that started in 2018.

That’s a big deal in an industry where women make up a very small portion of the workforce.

Courtney Grisby, center, and Jemari Ferguson, second from left, congratulate each other after receiving their certificates at the graduation ceremony for the first all-female Building Futures class.

“Women hold us up, so it was our turn to hold you up,” Program Manager Leland Bass said during the ceremony, which also included eight women graduating from the first class of a sister program called Driving Futures, which trains people for jobs in the transportation industry.

Bass continued: “When I was talking to my case manager, they said, ‘When I see this group, I see my mom, my sister, my niece, maybe this is my daughter.’ We’re going to continue to support you.”

Grisby, 38, of the West Side, is hoping to land a laborer apprenticeship, while Hard, 31, of Bexley, is looking to get training in sprinkler fitting or plumbing.

“I’m ready to get to work,” Grisby said. “I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. That’s why I want to be a laborer. I’m hoping to get into the swing of things real soon.”

‘A princess dress and a hard hat’
Building Futures began four years ago and is a partnership between Franklin County, the Columbus/Central Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council and the Columbus Urban League.

Bass said for the first four weeks, participants are taught “soft skills” where they learn how to operate on a job site, interpersonal skills and financial literacy. The remaining eight weeks focus on trade-specific instruction and safety training through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Participants are given a $250 weekly stipend to attend classes four days a week, Bass said.

Upon graduation, participants can join one of the affiliated trades through the Columbus/Central Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, which includes bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and drywall finishers. The apprenticeships are paid for by contractors and local unions, Kelly Harrop, communications and outreach specialist for the trade council, said.

Jemari Fergusson, of Columbus, prepares to learn how to cut metal with a torch during a Building Futures class. Women make up a very small portion of the workforce in the construction industry.
The first all-female class was years in the making.

Spearheaded by Columbus NAACP President Nana Watson, she said she wanted to sure that Black women were represented in skilled trades. Watson had a chance to speak to some of those women during the beginning of the program.

“I had the opportunity to meet them at the introduction to Building Futures and it was really heart-wrenching when I heard some of their stories and where they had been and how important this program will be to them and their families,” she said.

For this group, Harrop made sure to find female speakers who also were successful in the industry.

“Then they can really give them a glimpse at what it’s like to be on one of those job sites,” she said. “We know it’s not all sunshine and roses, and there’s different challenges that women face than men face.”

Harrop said she wants women to see that they can be successful in male-dominated fields like construction.

“I always tell people I want little girls to have in their dress-up box, right next to their princess dress is a safety vest and hard hat.”

More women entering construction industry

Opportunities for women in construction are growing, according to a 2021 survey by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) and Safe Site Check In, an app that provides digital and paperless health and safety screening.

More than 700 women in construction participated in the survey, with 71% stating opportunities are up.

But only 10.9% of women made up the workforce in construction in 2020, according to NAWIC, a nonprofit that provides education, community and advocacy for women in the industry.

And like many other fields, women experience pay gaps compared to men. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in the general field of construction made 74 cents to the dollar in 2020 compared to men, resulting in a difference of $12,220 for annual earnings.

Colleen Cross, president of NAWIC’s Columbus chapter, said she does not have any statistics about women construction workers in this region, but she believes the industry is changing for the better. She said she is seeing more women at her workplace, Corna Kokosing Construction Company in Westerville and there are 46 women that are part of the local chapter.

“I’ve been in the construction industry for the past seven years. … As somebody who’s on-site full-time, I’ve seen a lot more women in the field,” Cross said.

Tool time
And the women from the most recent Building Futures class are ready to join them.

For one of their last sessions, they got to experiment with power tools, aided by instruction from Chrissy Marsey, an electrician who is executive director of the nonprofit Central Ohio Women in the Trades.

During an April evening, she held class outside of the Ironworkers Local 172 training facility in South Columbus. Marsey showed Grisby, Hard and two other women in their small group how to operate a rotary hammer drill.

“Use your knees as a brace,” Marsey said to Grisby as she bent her knees.

Grisby then chiseled off a large piece of concrete, a cloud of dust surrounding her.

After stints of working janitorial jobs and as a nurse aide, the West Side mother of five said she entered the program because she wanted to try something different.

Grisby said she’s interested in being a construction laborer because of the variety. A laborer typically performs tasks involving physical labor at construction sites such as operating power tools and cleaning and preparing sites.

Grisby hopes eventually to move back home to Lima and work with her uncle, who is a union laborer there.

“I can learn all of these skills and be able to be there for family and friends,” she said. “I have four sons and a daughter; I’m hoping they can follow in my footsteps if that’s what they desire.”

Hard also is looking for a fresh start. The Bexley resident was referred to the program through Franklin’s Changing Actions to Change Habits (CATCH) Court, which provides resources to victims of human trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Hard said she began her new chapter by getting sober almost a year ago. Now, she wants to be a good role model for her three young daughters and show that girls can have good jobs, too.

“It’s cool to be a part of something that’s bigger than me and is making a way for people behind me,” Hard said.

The first all-female Building Futures class poses for a photo at its graduation ceremony earlier this month.

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