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Crafting Self-Identity

Women on construction sites, including Climate Pledge Arena, are thriving as craft workers on equal footing at their places of work

By Bob Condor

When Pati Ramirez-Fox drives her five-year-old son around Seattle, he gets excited to point out construction sites. Earlier this week, Sarah Nygren’s 17-year-old son looked at his mom’s fingernails and remarked how they look like “a man’s hands.”

Both women have sons who think their mothers are “pretty cool.” That’s because Ramirez-Fox and Nygren embrace the role of loving moms and strongly identify as skilled construction craft workers who are part of the build at Climate Pledge Arena. In honor of national Women in Construction Week (#WICWeek2021), here’s more about these cool moms.   

Ramirez-Fox
Ramirez-Fox

“The trades have really given me a sense of self-identity and a clear path to providing for my son and me,” says Ramirez-Fox, 25, an apprentice with Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 66. “In the trades you get out what you put in, so you set your own limits and anything is possible.”

Ramirez-Fox grew up in Seattle, making it even more special to be working on the brand-new arena. She says when Kent-based Hermanson Company won the sheet metal bid “I was really excited to work there.” She started last May (“it was just a big hole in the ground”) and since has rotated to other job sites as part of the apprenticeship, though she does still get to Climate Pledge Arena for special assignments.

Her five-year-old is equally excited: “We’ll drive by a job site and he’ll say, “hey, Mom, you did that one!’ Or he knows I have friends at other job sites, so when we pass those sites, he asks me if my friends are in there.”

Nygren, 36, is a self-described latecomer to the trades and Local 66. She is currently working 10-hour shifts as a sheet metal apprentice at Climate Pledge Arena and commutes 90 minutes each way from Graham, WA (15 minutes south of Puyallup). She has worked in construction for two years after a previous career as a bartender/server making “excellent money” but without health benefits or retirement savings. The commute is more than worth it.

“My favorite part about working construction is that I can be myself 100 percent of the time,:” says Nygren, whose husband is also in the trades and worked on the demolition of the now gone Key Arena. “I am literally learning something new every single day. I am always bragging on it, how cool it is to be out there and see [Climate Pledge Arena] come to life.”

Nygren and Ramirez-Fox both made their way to the arena by starting with ANEW [LINK: https://anewaop.org/], a pre-apprenticeship training program based in Renton focused on opportunities for women and BIPOC individuals. Nygren says she has “a few girlfriends already in the trades” as electricians and ironworkers. When her former employer shut down, ending her bartending gig, she decided it was time to apply to ANEW.

“I was pretty new to the industry and trades,” says Nygren. “It was pretty intimidating as a woman, but I was delighted to discover I am treated like everyone else on the crew. We’re all part of the team, we laugh together and work hard.”

Nygren
Nygren

“ANEW exists to help women and minorities get into the trades who otherwise don’t have an ‘in,’ such as friends or family members, to advocate for them,” says Ramirez-Fox.

ANEW was founded in 1980 as an organization “dedicated to improving the access and advancement of women in non-traditional career pathways such as construction and manufacturing,” according to its website. Its work is clearly making a difference and industry leaders such as Julie Villao are encouraged.

“Gender equity in the construction industry is way, way better,” says Villao, chief operating officer of Intellgent Partnerships, a local inclusion design firm that specializes in strategic labor planning and documents inclusion for industries and businesses. “More and more owners of [construction] projects are doing things right and purposefully.”

Ramirez-Fox faced obstacles to finding a career fit. She explains when “juvenile crimes made it hard” to pursue her preferred choice of the medical field, she turned to the trades in part because she grew up with family who are “almost all carpenters and framers.” She couldn’t be happier: She exited an abusive marriage, no longer has financial struggles, bought a house in Everett and is thrilled “my whole life depends on me.”

“You give 100 percent to the trades, it comes right back to you,” she says. “You turn the negative into positive.  If I could tell women entering the trades one thing I would tell them to not be scared to make mistakes. Own your zone … let it be known by your work ethic and persistence that we are here to stay.”

Nygren worked through adversity as well: “I am a convicted felon and I will be seven years clean and sober this week,” says Nygren noting she is happy to share her story to reach out to others who might facing similar challenges. “I let that all affect my ability to do better for myself and my family. I let my past and the fact I was making good money limit me. I felt stuck, that I couldn’t chase my dream.”

The construction industry gave Nygren her dream back.

“The opportunities in the trades are limitless,” says Nygren, driving home from Climate Pledge Arena Wednesday night. “I am now living the life I know I deserve.”

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