The Eleven Percent: Spotlight on Women in the Trades
This FH series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U.S., sharing stories of their careers in the field.
Jess Hirsch, Carpenter and Woodworker
From cutting bathroom trim to carving dough bowls with Norse tools, Jess Hirsch loves all things wood. Since earning a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota in 2013, Hirsch has worked primarily as a sculpture artist. She founded the nonprofit Fireweed Community Woodshop, which helps empower women and non-binary people through teaching woodcraft. Classes range from DIY renovation to furniture making to basket weaving. Hirsch personally teaches bowl turning and spoon carving.
“I like the intimacy of working with wood. I just have an affinity to the material because of its organic nature, how you have to have this physical dance while shaping it, and how it’s connected to the landscape. It constructs our homes, stirs our food, and can be purely an object of beauty.”
Judaline Cassidy, Plumber
When Judaline Cassidy set her sights on a trade school education in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago, the not-quite-five-foot-tall young woman first had to convince the instructor she could hack it as a plumber.
“I literally dropped down and was doing push-ups and saying, ‘I got this!’ ” she says. “And that’s how I got accepted into the program.”
After school, Cassidy moved to New York City, where she worked as a nanny, housekeeper and personal shopper. Once she dug into plumbing, she quickly excelled, becoming one of the first women accepted into Plumbers Local No. 371 on Staten Island. Meet Jessie Cannizzaro, a plumbing contractor running her own company.
Twenty-five years later, she is still passionate about the trade and her union while mastering her craft for the New York City Housing Authority.
“Jobs don’t have genders and the trades can be your ticket from poverty to middle class. Plumbing did that for me. I grew up not loving myself, not having any self-confidence. But when I picked up a tool, it changed the way I viewed myself and how great I was. It’s empowering.”
Jenny McCarthy, Painter
In her early 20s, McCarthy quit her job as a secretary and left home for the first time to complete a ten-week course in wallpapering. After graduation, she often wallpapered alongside her father when he painted houses, a side gig to his job as a history teacher. For a decade, business boomed.
“Thirty-plus years ago, wallpaper was the thing,” she says. “Then, in the blink of an eye, everybody was like, ‘No, I don’t want wallpaper anymore, let’s strip it all off.’ ”
McCarthy rolled with the times and worked double-duty to learn painting skills from her dad. Before long, she turned that knowledge into a full-fledged arm of her business. More recently she branched out again, inventing and launching the Stud Hugger, a drywall-hanging tool.
“If you do your best, you’ll outshine the son of a gun who is a little bit insecure and doesn’t want you there. Blow past them with your work ethic, quality and tenacity to succeed. But always keep in the back of your mind, you have nothing to prove except to your customers, who will never stray if they feel you are taking care of them.”
Andrea Harris, Cement Mason
Andrea Harris first worked building bridges and high rises. After donating a kidney to her mother in 2005 — “One of the best things I have ever done,” she says — Harris switched to the public sector, becoming the first woman cement mason for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY).
“I said, ‘I’ll do anything right now that makes money,’ but no one believed me,” she says. “I don’t want to say I’m a girly girl, but I’m soft, and some people were like, `There’s no way you can do that.’ And now I’m going into my 26th year as a cement mason. Wow.”
Her day-to-day duties include repairing curb aprons, garage floors and other projects that keep firehouses safe.
“When I’m driving by a construction job and I see all of these women working, in my heart I’m cheering. You remember how we were out there clapping for the first responders? I want to be out there clapping for these women, because look at what’s changed from where we started 20-plus years ago. I absolutely love that.”
Tami Gallagher, Gardener
Tami Gallagher used to help people organize the inside of their homes. She did it so well that some of her clients suddenly had free time to focus on their yards. Then Gallagher discovered she was good at that, too. Before long, she shifted her business to professional gardening services, following her natural love of plants and critters.
The transition didn’t happen overnight. She studied master gardening at the University of Minnesota and took as many horticulture and business classes as she could find. She found mentors through landscaping networking groups before taking the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA) professional exam.
“There’s also a perception that gardening is easy, unnecessary or non-essential; just a woman in her little straw hat with a watering can. So we fight the perception that we are not doing hard physical work. We get just as hot and sweaty and need to be as physically fit as everybody else in the industry.”
Elizabeth Turner and Abby Meuser-Herr, Architects
Abby Meuser-Herr (AIA, CPHC) and Elizabeth Turner (AIA, CPHC) have big goals. They don’t just want their architectural firm to be successful. They want to create sustainable, equitable communities for all.
They’re part of a worldwide push to turn their industry carbon-neutral by 2030. That’s a critical goal, since buildings and the materials used to make them account for 39 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
The two met in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. They later worked at the same firm for a few years, until they became frustrated with the industry’s slow pace of implementing climate-forward practices. Now they head their own firm, Precipitate, that builds energy-efficient multifamily housing projects.
“We both came from firms where it was a fine workplace overall, but we realized we had hit that glass ceiling. We had to break away and do our own thing so we felt like we were being authentic to our calling.”
Debra Hilmerson, Jobsite Safety Pro
After college, Deb Hilmerson thought about becoming a teacher. But she knew the pay would never meet her expectations, so she decided to pursue a career in construction instead. It was a natural fit. Already mechanically inclined, as a kid she enjoyed hanging around her dad’s junkyard, salvaging headlights and driving loaders.
As a union construction worker, she was often troubled by safety equipment that appeared cumbersome or inadequate. Then tragedy struck. One of her coworkers died from a worksite injury.
“He was just doing his job,” she says. “He was going to leave at the same time I was, and then he didn’t go home. Deep down, that gave me this desire to want to do something different.”
That “different” came when she was offered a job as safety coordinator. With the knowledge gained through that and subsequent safety director and consultant positions, Hilmerson founded Hilmerson Safety, which designs and manufactures construction safety products.
“I had to prove myself and let them know that I didn’t want to wear the pink hard hat and hold the stop sign. I wanted to be physically involved and do exactly what the guys did, without special treatment.”
Jess Hirsch, Carpenter and Woodworker
From cutting bathroom trim to carving dough bowls with Norse tools, Jess Hirsch loves all things wood.
“I like the intimacy of working with wood,” she says. “I just have an affinity to the material because of its organic nature, how you have to have this physical dance while shaping it, and how it’s connected to the landscape. It constructs our homes, stirs our food, and can be purely an object of beauty.”
Since earning a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota in 2013, Hirsch has worked primarily as a sculpture artist. She founded the nonprofit Fireweed Community Woodshop, which helps empower women and non-binary people through teaching woodcraft. Classes range from DIY renovation to furniture making to basket weaving. Hirsch personally teaches bowl turning and spoon carving.
When COVID-19 hit, she closed the woodshop and move classes online. That sudden work instability prompted her to enter a new phase of her career: construction. In 2021 she started as an apprentice carpenter with Terra Firma, a Minnesota-based remodeling and building company.
“Carpentry has been a really fun jump into more practical, utilitarian projects. Working on houses feels like an interactive wood sculpture in a lot of ways. I love helping a space transform from a flat idea into the 3D world.”
Sarah Lechowich, Roofer and CEO
Exterior contracting runs in Sarah Lechowich’s family. Though she loved to tinker in her dad’s shop as a kid, she hesitated following her father and grandfather into the trades as a career.
“When I was younger, I felt torn between helping Mom in the kitchen and wanting to help Dad out in the garage,” she says. “Like a lot of women, I was torn between cultural and societal expectations and what was pulling my interest.”
So she became a university professor, then got a gig at a community nonprofit teaching young people about trades and apprenticeships. It wasn’t until she helped one of her friends start a roofing business that the notion of entering the trades herself came about.
“I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I didn’t realize how rewarding it was.”
Five years later, Lechowich started a roofing company in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. At first, she did it as a hobby to help out friends and family. But soon it blossomed. Because she felt she finally found her direction in life, she named her company True North Roofing.
“I never would have expected it, but here I am. I’ve never been happier. It’s the best thing ever, and I love bringing other women into the trades.”
Maggie Rogosienski, Electrical Apprentice
At age 34 with a four-year-old son, Maggie Rogosienski hit a wall. She loved her career as a personal trainer until two major life events shook her world: A divorce, then a landlord suddenly shutting down the gym she owned.
“I thought it was going to be my forever career,” she says. “I was devastated. I mean, I really hit rock bottom.”
Her brother, 38 at the time, also faced a career crossroads. So when their steamfitter cousin suggested the trades, the siblings made a pact to begin electrical apprenticeships.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I remember crying the day before I started, thinking that I can’t do this. I never had more than a Walmart screwdriver to my name. There’s nothing wrong with it; I think I even still have it. But the trades were never an environment that I was exposed to.”
On her first day she didn’t know what to do, so she organized a mess of hardware on the shelves. That boosted her confidence. Today, she’s in her third year of the program in Milwaukee.
“I’ll never look back with an atom of regret. Life has been both a blessing and a challenge, but I’m grateful for who I am becoming. I love construction and truly feel like I’m going to wind up in a life greater than I ever believed possible.”
Celia Reyes, Welder
When she was a kid, Celia Reyes remembers watching her dad do thermite welding for the Union Pacific Railroad. She thought it looked really cool, like a volcano. But it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she decided to try out welding for herself.
She took a community college course and loved it. Her dad said that if she wanted to make a career of it, she should go to Tulsa Welding School, the best in the area.
“He took me on a tour of the school,” she says. “After that, it was like, ‘Let’s do this! I want to enjoy this and learn how to do this.’ ”
There was only one other woman in her initial class of 150. The school was fast-paced and challenging, and many of her male peers told her she couldn’t do it. Only 10 students ultimately made it through the intensive seven-month program — Reyes, and nine others.
She’s spent the past 11 years working for John Zink Hamworthy Combustion, where she welds smart combustion solutions that minimize carbon emissions. “They’re giant flares,” she says. “Like you see in the movies, the flares out in the oil fields.”
Her fierce determination led her to a job she loves, in an industry where women make up just seven percent of the workforce. It has also made her intent on showing others that women can be successful in the skilled trades. Part of that includes teaching welding at Oklahoma Technical College.
“It’s a really satisfying career, especially if you enjoy working with your hands and enjoy building objects or creating art. There’s so much welding out there, it’s used for everything, even in fields like aerospace.”
Bella Weinstein, Founder of Handyma’am Goods
When Bella Weinstein picked up woodworking as a hobby, she had a hard time finding clothes to wear to the shop that were durable and fit well. So she decided to make some for herself, as well as for other women who work with their hands.
Admittedly, her background as a professional hairstylist and art director didn’t give her the ideal qualifications to develop and market a line of clothing. But living in New York, she found help from a friend who worked as a pattern maker.
“I was naive enough to think that I could do it,” she says. “But I’m a collector of skills. I had the drive and wanted to learn something new.”
So in 2014 she started Handyma’am Goods, a line of functional clothing for tradeswomen and artists. But her goals don’t end with practical, artful clothing. She also works hard to embrace holistic business practices, including partnerships with American manufacturers who pay their employees a living wage, provide good working conditions and share her concern for the environment.
“The best part is the relationships that I’ve gained through it. The connections are more satisfying than designing a garment.”
Melinde Madsen, Production Carpenter
Melinde Madsen loves to make things. In college she studied woodworking, bronze casting and metalwork, creating sculptures aplenty. But while she excelled at those crafts, she didn’t truly consider herself a fine artist.
So when she was offered a job as a production carpenter at Minneapolis-based building and remodeling company Terra Firma, she saw it as the perfect opportunity to keep adding to her skill set.
“Working as a carpenter has been a great way for me to continue my education,” she says. “Even though I have a background in woodworking, carpentry focuses a lot more on the structural side of building. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s been really fun.”
Madsen is wrapping up her first year at Terra Firma. So far she’s learned hands-on skills, from demolition to framing. Recently she’s been enjoying a lot of trim work. She also works as a studio technician at St. Olaf College, where she manages student workers, fixes tools and handles administrative and budgeting tasks. Looking for more inspiration? Meet Soph Davenberry, a sheet metal worker.
In her free time, she still pursues her love of creating useful things, including carving spoons.
“There’s so much to it. With remodeling, every building is different and every project is a new experience. I love working on tiny trim details and figuring out how to make it look the most aesthetically pleasing.”
Mary Kehl, Handyman Apprentice and Medic
As a woman in her 50s, Mary Kehl is not your typical apprentice. After careers as a firefighter, EMT/paramedic and physician assistant, she’s just now embarking on her newest endeavor — becoming a handyman.
“After thirty years I was ready for a change,” she says. “I still really enjoy working with patients and helping people, but I needed something to spark my interest and make me feel like I was learning new things.”
She always enjoyed DIYing and decided to attend the Construction Skills Bootcamp Program at the Build Strong Academy in Colorado. Upon graduation, she got a job with Handyman Connection of Golden, Colorado. She works with master craftsmen, learning residential home remodeling and maintenance.
“There have been a lot of naysayers, asking me why I’m changing careers and why I’d want to be a handyman,” she says. “But I’ve always liked building and fixing things, and problem-solving. It just fits my personality. So I won’t let them hold me back.”
She’s only been at the job for a couple of months, but so far she says it’s a great fit. It offers a flexible schedule to accommodate her work as a medic with the National Guard, and the variety of tasks keeps her mind entertained.
“It’s great that women are feeling empowered to try trade skills, do what they want and not follow gender or societal norms like, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because you’re a female.’ That needs to continue, and I think it will. I think there’s a lot of positive energy out there.”
Schannon Yodice, That Tile Chick
As the daughter of a stonemason, Schannon Yodice grew up with tools in hand, helping her dad on projects. Although she enjoyed it, when it came time to choose a career, she opted for college. Then she spent the next decade working as an accountant.
“I hated it,” she says. “Working behind a computer was completely opposite to my personality. I like being physical and doing things, and accounting was sitting in this gray cubicle all day. I felt like I was trapped all the time.”
So in 2017, she and her fiancé decided to start a general contracting business. They soon learned it wasn’t easy to find reliable skilled workers and subcontractors. They abhorred sub-par work, so they started learning construction skills as needed to complete jobs.
They found a mentor through this process, a master tile setter who agreed to teach them his trade before retiring and handing them his client list. Yodice and her fiancé decided to focus on their tile business full-time.
“The best part about it is every job is different. You never get bored. Your skills are always growing and improving.”
Brenda Hay, Welding Authorized Inspector-in-Training
Brenda Hay worked hard and tried a lot of careers before she finally found her calling. Her first job was bussing tables when she was 13. Then, after having a son, she worked in electron microscopy before going to law school.
Being a single mom, she took law school classes at night. She said she was one of just six percent of students to pass a preliminary bar exam on the first try. But after twice falling just shy of passing the actual bar exam, she lacked the financial means to keep trying. So she moved on, working various jobs.
“After many years of doing that, I just wasn’t really happy,” says Hay. “The money wasn’t as good as I wanted, and I just didn’t feel like it was my place.”
When her son said he wanted to be a welder, she remembered how much she enjoyed welding in high school and college. So she signed up as well. She spent almost two years at out-of-state schools, away from her husband in Utah.
She returned home after graduation, but the pandemic made it difficult to find work. After six months of searching locally, she took a job in Oklahoma. She worked there for 16 months until her sacrifice paid off in a big way.
Now, at age 48, she’s about to start a new job as a welding training authorized inspector (AI)-in-training with Hartford Steam and Boiler, back home in Utah. Her task: Making sure high-pressure boilers are safe and strong.
“I got my dream job with my dream company. I’m so excited about this. I didn’t know this world existed and I’m in it now. I absolutely love my life. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
Ally Childress, Journeyworker Electrician
Ally Childress loves to learn. In her 20s, she had a blast earning her degree in English literature. Twenty years later, she equally enjoyed going back to school to study electricity.
Between those two major education stints, she worked in an entirely different field: science. She monitored water quality for a government agency, then tested food for pathogens at a multinational food safety company.
After a decade, she didn’t see herself moving up since her degree didn’t match her position. She decided instead to pursue a career in the trades, where she could use her more technical inclinations, and started researching possibilities. “Electrician just jumped out at me, so I signed up,” she says.
Childress completed the five-year International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) apprenticeship program in Minnesota in 2020. The program features one day of school and four days of work weekly, a model she loved.
“I learned that I’m a bit of a code nerd,” she says. “There are rules that must be followed to make electricity safe for the people using it, and they can be pretty dense and difficult to parse. Learning the code turned out to be my favorite part of the process.”
After completing her apprenticeship she became a journeyworker, which Childress truly enjoys. But in the summer of 2021, an nagging ankle injury forced her off the jobsite. She’s currently healing in Texas, where she and her wife recently moved to be closer to family.
“I want to be thought of as a good electrician, not a good woman electrician. I’ve had a few coworkers say stuff like, ‘You’re really good at this for a girl.’ Guys, that’s not a compliment.”
Thea Alvin, Stonemason
Thea Alvin has been working as a stonemason for nearly four decades, starting when she was 16, helping her father mix mortar and carry bricks. “I was free labor for him, so it was an easy ask,” she says.
While other girls played with dolls, she lugged rocks and learned the craft. Apprenticed to masters for seven years, Alvin spent an additional two years in hammer work. She also traveled to Europe as a member of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (a WWOOFer for short), working on farms and learning how masons practiced the trade in their countries. She eventually transitioned into sculpture with stone masonry as her medium.
Alvin is now considered one of the world’s foremost dry-stacking stonemasons. She’s worked on chapels, walkways and water features. One month she might be rebuilding a 15th-Century domed Trulli house in Southern Italy; the next, crafting a spring-fed cistern in an upscale Colorado yard. Creativity and pushing artistic boundaries are common elements in all her projects.
“Stone masonry as a career came as a result of loving being outside, of the challenge of the paradox of me doing it,” she says. “I love being an unlikely mason. I love being mistaken for innocent. And I love showing folks that I know my stuff. That has kept me hooked.”
Between professional tasks she tends to her Vermont goat farm, teaches intensive stonemasonry workshops and keeps all her business nuts and bolts in place.
“I sometimes get accused of being a redneck, or accused of being a hippie. But I really believe that as an artist you can tread in all of those. You can have all of those things and not have to be black or white. You can have that beautiful gray part in the middle.”
Lydia Crowder, Drywall Contractor
After one semester of college in her hometown of Bozeman, Montana, Lydia Crowder realized higher education wasn’t a good fit for her. Fortunately her dad, a veteran drywall pro, asked if she wanted to give that a shot. “I was 18 when I started working for him, and I just fell in love with it,” says Crowder.
Her father’s employees also encouraged and helped train her. Now, twenty years later, she’s running her own company and still loving the freedom, variety and physical sense of accomplishment it brings.
“Every house you walk into has its own challenges, so you’re always trying to troubleshoot and find a solution to get the best end product,” she says. “Then at the end of the day, I see everything I accomplished with my hands and think, ‘I killed that. I did an amazing job and everybody’s happy.’ ”
A few years ago she started her Instagram account @DrywallShorty, a handle that’s a nod to her height (she’s 5 foot 1). There, she reveals tricks of the trade to her more than 200,000 followers and anyone else who wants to learn
“We need to realize it doesn’t hurt us to have more competition. Instead, we need to be thinking about the big picture, and how to help the industry sustain itself with a high level of well-trained construction workers. To do that we need to be more inclusive, sharing tips and tricks, instead of thinking somebody is going to come steal our work from us.”
Belick Pha, Senior Construction Supervisor
Ever since she was a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota, Belick Pha wanted to be an engineer. “I saw Iron Man and Batman, and I wanted to design really cool stuff,” she says.
Because of her talent and motivation, a high school advisor recommended she apply for an internship with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “Seeds” program. Seeds — a concept, not an acronym — encourages minority, female and economically disadvantaged students into career tracks in transportation and construction.
“I just wanted to have a job, so I said, ‘Why not?’ ” Pha says.
She stayed with the program throughout high school and into college. Then in her junior year, she switched her degree track from mechanical engineering to geotechnical engineering because she realized it would get her out in the field more.
“I thought, ‘I can’t sit behind a desk and design all day,’ ” she says. “I’m a high energy kid and I really enjoy being outside. You get half and half with being an engineer in construction.”
Today she’s nearly 15 years into a diverse career, moving through various jobs in public and private construction — engineering technician, staff engineer, project manager and deputy quality assurance manager. Pha says she’s thrilled to have found her niche in the construction industry.
In 2022 she started a new job with Cargill, managing day-to-day operations on work sites. She oversees safety and keeps everything running smoothly for teams of electricians, pipefitters, concrete layers and earth workers.
“I’m not that outspoken, so I really had to learn how to assert myself, how to work with people and pick my battles. It was a tough first decade, but it was worth it.”
Becca Haggard, Roofing Contractor
Becca Haggard grew up a tomboy, regularly climbing out of her bedroom window to enjoy the view from the roof. As she watched her dad work on creative household projects like building decks and treehouses, she found it fascinating.
“I saw how certain tools would do certain things, and it just made sense,” she says. “I think that’s just how my brain is wired.”
Now Haggard owns her own roofing company, A Girl On A Roof, which serves northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
“I’ve noticed that typically the man in the household handles a lot of the home projects, like the roof. But when I’m meeting with a married couple, it gives the wife a sense of empowerment and involvement. Instead of letting him handle it, she ends up heading the project.”
Jessie Cannizzaro, Plumbing Contractor
Though Jessie Cannizzaro grew up helping her dad with the family plumbing business, she had no intention of following in his footsteps. Instead, she set her sights on college. After initially studying to be a veterinarian, she shifted into business. Then her dad had a stroke, so she stepped in to help out. Soon, she rediscovered her passion for plumbing.
“I decided I wanted to be in plumbing forever,” she says. “And one of the cool things is, I was able to take my business degree, marry it with apprenticeship training, and eventually get my license to start my own business. So it all came together incredibly well.”
In 2011 she launched Milestone Plumbing, based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which specializes in residential remodels and repairs. Besides supervising 16 employees, she advocates for multiple organizations that encourage high school students to enter the trades. She also created a coloring book to introduce elementary-aged kids to the joys of being a plumber.
“It’s worth investing the time to explore and find what you love to do — your passion — because I meet so many adults who hate what they do every day. They wish they would have gone into a different career.”
Renee Wilson, Insulation Contractor/Owner
Renee Wilson is passionate about insulation. She was first introduced to it in the fifth grade, when her dad founded their family business. Through the years, she helped him on installation jobs and bookwork. By the time she was in her 40s, he handed her the reins. Now, she’s his boss.
“We’re lucky because my dad and I have a really special relationship and communicate well,” she says. “And I’m lucky because I love what I do. I love helping people stay comfortable in their homes.”
Wilson’s southern Wisconsin-based company, Rockweiler Insulation focuses on single-family new home construction as well as retrofitting existing houses.
“When starting any career, always be learning and be curious. Ask questions and talk to as many people as you can. I still love learning about this industry, going to conferences and reading books. It’s always changing.”
Kat Christie, Residential Handyperson
Eight years ago, Kat Christie took her childhood love of tinkering pro, starting as an espresso machine technician. That ignited her curiosity and desire to delve into home repair. In 2017, she earned a Handyman Certificate Course from York College in Queens, New York, a major step toward her dream of running her own handywoman business.
Christie launched She Fixed That in 2019, and went full-time the following year at the start of the pandemic. Since people were home, mulling unfinished projects and ordering home office necessities, her business took off. “Patching a small hole in a wall, furniture assembly, hanging TVs and gallery walls, building pantries and library walls — no day is the same,” Christie says.
In 2021 she moved from New Jersey to Birmingham, Alabama and quickly re-established her business in the new location.
“Up north or down south, people want to hire women. Women want to hire women. It’s a niche that I think exists everywhere.”