RUSKIN — On an October evening, 22 women donned pink hard hats and sat at the front of the room at Hillsborough Community College’s SouthShore campus. They had successfully completed the Women Building Futures program, a 15-week course designed to help women advance to higher paying roles in the construction industry.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprised about 9 percent of the the construction industry workforce in 2017. Even fewer are in higher paying roles. However, according to Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade association, the construction industry is expected to add almost two million new jobs by 2021.
Women Building Futures was started by Tampa’s Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women two years ago, and this year partnered with Enterprising Latinas, a Wimauma nonprofit focused on economic empowerment for low income Hispanic women. It is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Regions Bank and the local chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. It aims to help put women on a path to getting higher paying jobs, Ann Madsen, executive director for the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women, said.
“We started it because there’s a high demand for construction workers and it offers women a chance to make more than minimum wage,” Madsen said.
So far, the program has had 130 graduates.
Of the 22 women who graduated in the last class, 18 were Latina. Some were born in Mexico, Ecuador or Colombia. Some were born in Plant City.
Upon completion of the course, which includes instruction in carpentry, drywall, painting, block masonry/finishing, flooring, and construction administration, the women receive certification from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Center for Construction Education and Research.
Lori Pettit, an army veteran who taught the course, said that although her upbringing was different from many of the women, she came to construction through a similar route.
“Suddenly you realize you can do things yourself,” Pettit said. “I didn’t want to have to wait on a man to do things for me.”
At times, language was a barrier, but not one that couldn’t be sawed through, she said.
Pettit had taught herself many things. She wondered why not Spanish, too. She downloaded the Duolingo app on her phone to practice Spanish. Seeing that many of the women could understand her, but struggled to respond back, she encouraged them to download it as well to practice. Bilingual students helped translate the gaps.
But language wasn’t the only gap.
The course curriculum included building cornhole boards. It was the perfect teaching activity that incorporated many of the skills they would learn, including coming up with building materials, measuring and cutting precisely with appropriate equipment and executing a design.
But Pettit realized many of the women didn’t know what cornhole was.
The night before their assignment, she brought in a cornhole board and some beanbags, taught them the rules and told them it was her all-time favorite game. They all played over a good laugh. The next day, they split into two teams to construct the boards.
It was more than cornhole boards they were building, Pettit said.
“What I think we built … was a network of support.”
Monica Ruiz, 40, said at times the class was tough.
Some women would come to class in tears, she said. They came from homes where there was violence or financial stress.
The class became a place where they could tell each other they were enough, she said.
“I learned not only about construction, but about how strong women are,” she said. “When times are tough, pick yourself up off the ground, wipe the dust off, and keep going.”
Ruiz had been a stay-at-home mom. Her schedule revolved around picking up her kids from school and taking them where they needed to go. Her husband was always working, she said. When things she didn’t know how to fix needed to be fixed at home, she decided to take matters into her own hands instead of waiting.
Her husband, she said, was extremely supportive. He took over the kitchen and cooking for their daughters when she had to stay late for classes.
Now, she said, she can fix the floor. She can fix tiles. She also got a job while enrolled in the course and is earning an income.
“I feel proud of myself,” she said.
Hadhessah Vasquez, 30, lives in Plant City. She was a stay-at-home mother of a 2-year-old and 6-year-old when she heard about the class.
“I was tired of things,” she said. “I didn’t see myself in the world.”
Through the class, she learned skills she never thought she would: how to use a chisel, how to drive an excavator, how to connect with women who experienced similar frustrations.
At graduation, her husband — who she credits with supporting her through the program — and her children sat in the audience.
“They loved it,” she said. “They see a lot of change in me.”
Juliana Pineda, 55, hopes to build tiny houses and start her own business.
She moved to the U.S from Mexico in 1991 and her main focus had been getting her sons to college.
The youngest is in college now, she said, and one is in anesthesiology, one is an engineer and the other is a tattoo artist.
“It’s time to do what I’m going to do,” she said.
During the class, one student, Brenda Rodriguez, decided to start her own side business: Nacho Mama’s Munchies in Wimauma.
“One of the reasons she did it is because we told her she could,” Pettit said. “We said, ‘Yeah do it.’ That kind of support is so important to any woman in life.”
Santos Morales, director of economic prosperity at Enterprising Latinas, told the graduates about the ripple impact their decision to enroll in the program would have on their families and community.
“You have the power to move your lives forward,” he said.