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November 5, 2015
By Christine Pitawanich

PORTLAND, Ore. — On Thursday, roughly two dozen women worked to shatter stereotypes in Portland. They tore up carpeting, took down walls and pulled out insulation.

Yolanda Sandoval and her colleagues worked to demolish the interior of the Sugar Shack. The former image of women construction workersstrip club in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood is getting transformed into a community center. The building is known for its shady past involving alleged prostitution and tax fraud.

“It feels good. Having that drive, energy to tear it down especially knowing what it used to be, as a woman and with me being Latina,” said Sandoval.

Sandoval has her sights set on breaking into the construction trade.

“I’m excited and so eager,” Sandoval said.

She’s eager because for so long she was told she couldn’t cut it in the construction world.

“They’re like ‘what do you mean? That’s not for women, don’t even bother and on top of that you’re short. You’re not going to make it. Don’t even think about it. Go to an office job or go either to be a nurse,’” recalled Sandoval.

But now she’s pushing back and is involved in a program that trains women to work in the construction trade.

“Oregon Tradeswomen is a pre-apprenticeship training program that prepares low-income women for high wage skills in the construction trades,” explained Amy James Neel, an instructor in the program.

Neel said nationally, less than 3 percent of the construction workforce is made up of women. She said the percentage is higher in Oregon at 6.7 percent because of the work Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. is doing.

“They call the construction life FBI: fathers, brothers and in-laws. That’s the only time you ever get into it and a lot of women don’t have that option,” said Ali Foster, who is a participant in the program.

She said she’s not low-income, but she’s trying to find out what options she has in the construction world.

“It’s really cool to have this type of program to really empower women to say you can do this,” continued Foster.

According to James Neel, the demand for construction workers is booming, but there’s a huge shortage as baby boomers retire.

“They are leaving in droves and there just simply isn’t the workforce behind them to replace them,” she said.

The hope is the women in the program will help replace the retiring workers. The program is offered four times a year and is funded by donations and grants. It is free to participants, combines classroom time with field trips as well as hands-on experience, and it spans seven weeks.

“It’s only three weeks in and you already feel like a family. So it’s definitely encouraging and empowering to be with these women,” said Foster.

The women involved are out to do what they love, while at the same time challenging the status quo.

“It’s not a man’s job. It’s also a females job,” said Sandoval.

Once the women graduate, the entry level pay is about $15 an hour. After the program, workers can apply for a paid apprenticeship where they can gain more experience over four years. Depending on the trade, a construction worker could make $35 or more an hour.

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