Women carpenters succeed in a man’s world

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Exploring the
Carpenters Union

This is the fourth installment of an advertorial series on the United Brotherhood of Carpenters running this week in the Post-Tribune. Friday’s installment will detail the differences a local carpenter found while making a living when he switched from being nonunion to union.

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Lisa Gibson and Sandy Hennrich are standing strong in a male-dominated industry.

The two Northwest Indiana residents are part of the Sisters in the Brotherhood, a small but growing contingent of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

Their work attire consists of hard hats, jeans, short or long-sleeved T-shirts and a tool belt. Their desk is the work site, whether it’s on the ground or hundreds of feet up in the air. And, unlike some of their women friends with more traditional careers, they receive good pay as journeymen carpenters ($35.42 an hour), benefits and a retirement package that will allow them to enjoy their golden years without financial worry.

“It’s been a great move. Even a single mom can raise her family with dignity and provide for her kids,” Hennrich, 43, of Valparaiso, said.

Finding the path

For Gibson, it was not so much a matter of choosing carpentry as a career as it was someone choosing it for her.

It was in the early 1980s and jobs, like today, were difficult to find. Gibson, who was living in Pekin, Ill., went to Job Corps for help.

“I thought I would do computer work, but ended up being a carpenter,” said Gibson, who works out of Carpenters Union Local 599 in Hammond.

She headed to the Chicago area in 1983 and began work on constructing the Cline Avenue Bridge, a four- to five-year project.

Hennrich followed the suggestions of family members to join the union after she did not get a raise as promised at her previous employer. She always liked to work with her hands so she tried it and said she has not regretted her decision.

“It’s a great field,” said Hennrich, who is part of Carpenters Union Local 1005 in Hobart.

Not an easy road

Still, both seasoned carpenters said it isn’t always easy being a woman in a male-dominated industry. They said the work is hard and there still are prejudices to overcome.

“Each generation has to deal with its own set of prejudices,” said Gibson, who was raised in Pekin, Ill., and now lives in Lowell. “For me, it was being female, skinny and not from here.”

Hennrich said you have to earn the respect of your brothers, which she admitted is harder for female workers.

“Some still have the idea you shouldn’t be there,” she said. “Some will watch you fight just to watch you fight.”

Still, Gibson recalls the many fellow union members who have supported her through the years as a sister within the brotherhood. One who stood out and kept tabs on Gibson throughout the years was Bill Hass, who died of cancer in 2010.

“He was my good friend for 28 years and was always there if I needed help,” Gibson said. “I miss him and his never-ending optimism.”

Gibson said the best thing about being a female union carpenter is the freedom that it has given her to pursue rights our founding fathers bestowed on all Americans to enjoy.

“The union allows me to work in the different specialties that carpentry covers; it gives me access to classes to update and improve my skills, obtain an associate degree, have decent working conditions and be represented at the bargaining table to ensure a living wage, with health benefits and a pension that won’t disappear.”

Find your niche

Both women have learned a lot about being in the trades through the years — Hennrich for 16 years and Gibson for almost 30 years — and have some advice for others thinking of entering a trade union.

“Don’t try to do it like a guy. There will always be a niche in which you can find a place that you’ll enjoy, whether it’s ceiling work, flooring or scaffolding,” Gibson said.

She also recommended that those considering a carpentry career contact the apprenticeship program in Hobart, which serves locals in seven counties in Northwest Indiana, including Local 599 in Hammond and Carpenters Local 1005 in Hobart.

Hennrich said women carpenters need to be able to take criticism, work hard and listen to fellow female workers who have been on the job the longest.

“Go in with your head held high and do the best you can,” Hennrich said.

Gibson said the Sisters in the Brotherhood is just a part of the big picture of being union.

“(Sisters in the Brotherhood) has given me access to women I would probably never run into, the means to keep in touch, and the strength to get through the tough times,” she said. “I chose to walk a more difficult path than others, but I would say it has been a good life, and my retirement is just out there waiting for me.”

Provided by Custom Media Solutions for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters