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WOMAN at WORK

More than 5-million people work in the construction trades in this country, and fewer than 1 in 10 is female. By the turn of the century, though, 1-million women will have jobs in construction, industry analysts estimate.

Why? Money. For many, careers in the construction trades are a way out of a female ghetto of jobs (cleaning, waitressing, sales) that pay minimum wage: $4.25 an hour. They offer starting salaries between $7 and $8 an hour, insurance and other benefits, and career ladders with solid earning potential.

"The trades in non-traditional jobs are definitely paying more than traditional" women's jobs, said Marty Gonzalez, who administers the Gender Equity Program for the Hillsborough County school system, where several of the women interviewed for this story got their training. "There's more earning opportunity there." The district-wide post-secondary training program helps women and men pursue non-traditional careers _ in automotive and building trades, in health care and machining _ at Erwin, Brewster and Tampa Bay Technical Centers.

Construction jobs allow some women to do what they enjoy: making things, being handy. "I always liked so-called men's jobs. I like to be outside, I like to build things, fix things," said Celia Sykes of Tampa, who got her welding training at Erwin.

Sheila Fischer, Air Force veteran, carpenter and drywaller, described herself as "the one who put together the Christmas present. I always liked to work with my hands."

Many of the women interviewed (and they are just a few of many in the building industry in Tampa Bay) had this in common: visible, strong parents or parental figures _ usually fathers _ who built things with their daughters, supported and motivated them, made them feel they could do whatever they wanted, and treated them and their brothers the same.

Brenda Kunkel, marketing director at Westchase, recalls growing up in "Farmland USA, in South Carolina," with a father who was a farmer and builder. She remembers "building my first mailbox with him" and recalls that "he wanted me to be an architect."

Theresa Oechsle, general manager of the Bayou Club, said her father (he was a patents examiner in puzzles and games) "spent hours with us at night" and made her feel "there was nothing I couldn't do or wasn't able to do . . . He never looked upon the fact that I was a girl, growing up, as a handicap. It was just a non-issue. I never felt different from my brothers; he encouraged us all equally."

Fischer says her parents bought models and books for her and "didn't try to stick me in a female role and tell me what I had to do."

They are also women of strong self-motivation who decided what they wanted and did what they needed to do to get it: shouldering tough schedules of school, work and family responsibilities, fighting language barriers and shrugging off sexism. These women want an opportunity to show they can do the job. "If you haven't seen me do it," said electrician Sharon Phylon, "don't think on your own that I can't."

Hernando County builder Penny Szafran said, "I have not really found any major complications. I ran into a few when I first started. One snotty subcontractor insisted he talk to my husband. I insisted back, he has to talk to me. On the whole, my subcontractors are not looking at me as anything different than just a builder who's trying to get the project done."

Phyllis Cooper, controller at Inter-Bay Marine Construction Co. in Largo, is president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. One of her organization's goals, which it furthers through career days and competitions, is encouraging girls to seek careers in the construction trades.

"You have to start talking to these kids while they're young," she said. "You can't wait till they're in high school. You've got to let them know about construction at an early age, that there are non-traditional roles for women. They don't have to be a secretary; they can be out there in that field aside of a man."

Building is in her blood

Penny Szafran

Age: 43

Home: New Port Richey

Occupation: President, Cozy Homes; president, Hernando County Builders Association

The daughter of a builder, "I pretty much grew up with the lingo, reading blueprints. It was part of everyday life at home," Szafran said. In her 20s she joined her husband in the masonry and cement business and later got her own construction license, encouraged by her father, who suggested she could do the work as well as men could. Now the Szafrans' construction company builds about 28 houses a year. Szafran takes clients through the blueprint stage, visits her job sites every day to monitor the work, tracks progress on permits, makes sure change orders are recorded on blueprints and estimates jobs. She recommends vo-tech and junior college courses in the building trades and business. Best part of her job: "Handing those keys to someone and letting them move in their brand-new home . . . I don't see why any person wouldn't want to pursue a career where you can take something from an idea to an actuality."

"I'm going to make a man's paycheck'

Celia Sykes

Age: 28

Home: Tampa

Occupation: Welding

Celia Sykes cleaned carpets and upholstery, waited tables at Pizza Hut, cleaned airplane cabins, answered phones and did housekeeping. "All the jobs you get without having some kind of training is minimum wage or less," she said. If the economy were better and she and husband Paul could get by on one salary, she'd prefer to stay at home with their children, 6 and 2. "I didn't grow up with the idea of being in a man's world, but I figure, if I'm going to work, I'm going to make a man's paycheck." She and her husband enrolled together in the welding course at Erwin Tech, where she just finished her training.

Working with men, "usually they don't know where to put you. They don't know what you're physically capable of, so when you start working and you're doing what they're doing, it's not anything that's said, it's just that they start working with you instead of around you." Welding is hot, and some work is heavy "and I can't do it. I'm not going to hurt myself proving I'm a man. I can work in a fabrication shop and make $8 or $9 an hour and do something I like." Ultimately, she'd like to be an inspector for an engineering firm.

"You wouldn't believe the women who come up and say, "I'd like to try that.' Well, why don't you?!" Sykes said. "Don't mark anything off because it's all men."

A can-do attitude

Sharon Phylon

Age: 32

Home: Tampa

Occupation: Electrician

Four years ago, tired of dead-end jobs with no advancement, Sharon Phylon enrolled in the electrical course at Erwin Tech. She got her journeyman's license in three years instead of the usual four.

The reaction of male co-workers at first was "like stunned reality _ "Oh, we got a woman now.' . . . But most of the guys I work with now, they're all right with it." Her attitude: "You don't know what I can do till you see me do it . . . If you don't know I can do it, put me to the test . . . "I can't' is not in my vocabulary until I've tried and given my all to do it."

Phylon, 32, is the separated parent of three sons, 14, 12 and 10, and a daughter, 7, and she credits her adopted sister, who lives with her, who "was there for me, would take care of the kids . . . If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be as far along as I am now."

Going back to school wasn't difficult for Phylon "because I was determined not to be on government assistance. I don't want to be stuck in a hole. I want to do for myself and help others . . . You have to have enthusiasm and determination to do something better for yourself."

Compliments come with her work

Sheila Fischer

Age: 33

Home: Tampa

Occupation: Carpenter, drywaller

The worst thing is "when I walk onto a job and get a really funny look, like, "Oh, no,' but after a couple of days, it's, "Oh, boy, you're really good at your work.' The best thing is when you leave and they say, "I'm glad you were here, you're really good.' " Fischer served in the Air Force as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic. After that she tried sales and secretarial work, but "that just doesn't cut it for me." She learned carpentry at Erwin Technical Center in Tampa. She said she's always been mechanically inclined and has enjoyed working with her hands: "I'm creative, I've got to build and create and see the results of my work . . . I don't do this to meet men or anything. I do it for the money. That's the only reason, besides my interest."

Hard work, and more hard work

Johnnie Raulerson

Age: 67

Home: Tampa

Occupation: President, Raulerson & Son, landscape, irrigation and sod service

Johnnie Raulerson has worked since she was 13, starting at the soda fountain in a Liggett's Drug Store in Miami. Working nights at Western Union, she earned a degree in accounting at the University of Miami and worked as an accountant most of her life as well as in Republican political circles. When her husband retired in 1968 from the Strike Command Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, they started the landscape business "with one little tractor." She and her son, Glenn, have run the business since her husband's death. Now they do landscaping and irrigation for public and private clients in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Seminole counties.

Raulerson has done hands-on landscape design work as well as managing the business end. In earlier years "it was nothing for me to tuck my children in at night and work in my office till the wee hours. That's how we made it." A believer in hard work, study, religious faith and moral values, she tells young people: "Get up in the morning early, go to bed late, don't play so much, seek and search and go for it." As for dealing in a male-dominated industry, "I have heard other women say they were intimidated by overpowering men, but I never was."

Sacrifice pays off

G. Rodriguez

Age: 36

Home: Tampa

Occupation: architectural drafter

G. Rodriguez came to Tampa from Puerto Rico five years ago with little knowledge of English, an eighth-grade education, not much money and training as a cosmetologist. She quickly realized that she could not earn enough doing nails to be the sole support of her physically handicapped mother and three boys _ a nephew, now 14, and two sons, now 17 and 11, the youngest of whom is mentally and emotionally handicapped.

She went on Aid to Families With Dependent Children and spent two years improving her English at Erwin Tech. Then, given her skill at drawing, she enrolled in a drafting program. An encouraging teacher "told me all the time I'm doing great even if I don't feel I'm doing great." She got high marks in school, but it was tough: "Many times I thought, I want to quit, go no more, I was tired." She did drop out for a while to take care of personal problems, but "my mother pushed me to finish something in my life. She is my inspiration in life."

Six weeks before graduation she was hired part-time as an auto-CAD (computer-aided design) drafter with Greeley & Hansen, a Tampa engineering company that was seeking a bilingual employee, and now is full time. "I am very proud," she said. "All the things I went through and all the personal problems I came through . . . God sees that and knows what sacrifices you made." Her next goal: buying a home.

She's involved in everything

Brenda Kunkel

Age: 45

Home: Tampa

Occupation: Marketing director at Westchase, the 2,000-acre planned community in northern Hillsborough; president-elect, Builders Association of Greater Tampa

When Brenda Kunkel was a junior in high school, she wanted to be an elementary school teacher. But after majoring in business administration at the University of South Carolina, she began a career, first in accounting, then as a real estate agent ("You just work and work and work and work"), then moving into management as sales and marketing director for several developers. Now, as marketing director at Westchase, she sells land to builders, oversees architectural review and guidelines, works with the homeowners association committee and assists in making decisions about land planning. "I'm involved in all aspects of what goes on here. I've got my feet wet in different areas." The Southeast Builders Conference named her Florida sales and marketing director of the year this past summer.

"Every job I got, I learned a whole 'nother thing _ probably many more than one," Kunkel said. "Every step was upward, I never moved laterally, I always went forward." The secret: "Knowing the right people, the economy, being in the right place at the right time sometimes. And hard work. It's not a 9-to-5 business; you get out what you put in."

The math skills were key. "As a marketing director I could not have moved up the ladder as quickly without that foundation. It helped me immensely. Coming up with things as simple as lot prices, pro formas, all the research we get, being able to decipher it and figure out what it's saying to you . . . The world is all numbers today." She admits to having only "the bare necessities" of computer skills. "People say Lotus would save me 100 hours a week, but it scares me. I'm going to master it this year."

Respect must be earned

Theresa Oechsle

Age: 33

Home: Pinellas County

Occupation: Vice president and general manager, Bardmoor/Bayou Club Ltd., responsible for the Bayou Club, Bardmoor North Golf Club, and Bardmoor Tennis and Fitness Club in Largo

Her first job after college in commercial lending was the wrong personality match for Teri Oechsle (pronounced OH-shlee): not creative enough. Interested in real estate development (as a kid she "loved to dig in the dirt," and for a while thought she'd be an archaeologist-anthropologist), she became secretary to an investor who taught her the business. "There were times I was at his house till midnight taking notes, dictation, everything else." After two years, it was time to move on, but to make the leap from secretary to project manager she knew she needed another credential, so she got an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

She spent the next 10 years working for real estate development companies. Now, as vice president and general manager at the Bayou Club, she's responsible for financial management of an operation that has annual revenues of about $10-million. She manages the portfolio of assets, developing new strategies to enhance real estate revenues: deciding how to increase home sales, determining whether her properties are priced appropriately, establishing the media plan and the sales process in terms of staffing and builders. She oversees land development _ planning, timing, cost control _ and personnel issues, supervising almost 200 full-time and part-time employees.

Oechsle, 33, says she finds herself drawing more on her undergraduate communications studies than on her economics background to talk to builders, residents, club members, staff, engineers, marketing consultants, ad agencies. If someone calls her "dear" or "honey" or "sweetie"? "It doesn't bother me in the least. It depends on how they say it. I try not to get too bent out of shape about that. I call them "honey' and "sweetie' all the time, too.

"Once an individual proves herself capable of carrying out a particular task, whether overseeing construction of a home or construction of a community, most people treat you with the respect you deserve. If you don't earn the respect, you're not going to get it, it doesn't matter if you're male or female."

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