Tradeswomen on the Rise
Women make up 11 percent of construction employees across the country, but only 2.4 percent of all skilled trades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Washington state is ahead of the game with women totaling 4 percent (4,500 of 110,000) of all trades. As caisson construction goes, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Project outdoes the nation and state with a full 10 percent of the laborers and field engineers on the job.
"It's a man's world and probably always will be, but doors (once closed) have opened up to us, and male attitudes about women in the trades are changing," says Shelly McConville, one of 10 women who works on the bridge caissons. "For a man or a woman this is hard, fast paced, and grueling work." As attitudes about women on the construction site shift, opportunities for tradeswomen are rising. As compared to 20 years ago, the door that leads to construction work is opening wider and more often, McConville says.
No matter what a person's gender, McConville says, "We all have to earn the respect of those we work with."
Both McConville and a caisson coworker, Bob Ashmore, have worked in construction for more than two decades each. As concrete workers, it's a part of their job to place concrete pumped into the caissons' walls through a hose. After a recent morning safety meeting, Ashmore acknowledged the contributions of his female coworkers without a reference to gender: "They're intelligent, hard workers who know their job and do it well."
The "Women of the Bridge" range in age from 23 to 61. As Ashmore pointed out, they are accomplished, highly skilled women. These are women perfectly at ease inside a steel and concrete box, configured as 15 hexagon-shaped chambers. Each woman laborer, some of whom work on the bridge's anchorages, has anywhere from one to 24 years of construction work under her belt.
She's the ironworker with three school-age children. She's the carpenter who raised six children and in her free time dotes on six grandchildren. She's the spry, 61-year-old surveyor who does the 20-story journey from catwalk to caisson - just like the best of them.
The most senior woman of the group has raised four daughters and used to be a bookkeeper. But nine years ago, Sherri Rooney decided is was time for a change. That's when she began her career as a surveyor, working alongside her husband of 40 years, Ray Rooney.
Years in the trade: 24
Personal history: The 44-year-old Washington native lives in Fircrest with her husband and two daughters, 14 and 5.
Other highlights in construction: Jarmon started her first union job building footings and columns for the Tacoma Dome that was completed in 1982.
TNB bridge duties: As a member of the caisson "dredge well" crew she sets up the forms (molds) into which the concrete is placed. Forms must be "jumped up" every 10 feet to prepare for the next pour of 1,300 cubic yards of concrete.
Why she chose construction work: At first carpentry served as a means to paying college tuition. Jarmon quickly discovered that developing a mastery of an age-old trade was the education she sought.
Years in the trade: 22
Personal history: Born and raised in South Puget Sound, the 40-year-old mother of three daughters, 9, 11 and 14, lives in Puyallup with her husband of 17 years, a tradesman who works as a "pile driver."
Other highlights in construction: First West Seattle Bridge (high rise), the two SR 520 floating bridges, the Puyallup River bridge, SR 509 and Schuster Parkway, SR 705.
TNB bridge duties: She is a foreman, who among other duties, places concrete – helps to distribute it evenly – as it's being poured into the caissons (to build up the walls) and bridge anchorages.
Why she chose construction work: The field chose her: "I never second guessed my choice." McConville's father, a superintendent for Kiewit was the original role model. At 18, he helped McConville get her first job.
Years in the trade: 9
Personal history: The 61-year-old former bookkeeper commutes from Snohomish (the town) to the Narrows Bridge Project daily. She has four grown daughters.
Other highlights in construction: Learning the profession of surveying from husband Ray Rooney who has 39 years of experience in land, marine and building surveying.
TNB bridge duties: Using surveying tools, she and husband Ray determine the exact position of walls, rebar and other objects associated with the construction of the caissons and anchorages.