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A few years ago, Jewel Tolliver was working “extremely” part-time at a restaurant when she saw an ad for a pre-apprenticeship program that would teach her how to get into the construction industry. Today, the 28-year-old is an apprentice laborer with the Local 79 union in New York City earning $25 an hour plus time and a half for overtime—when there’s work. “I am very happy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a rough go. It’s a tough business, but I am very happy,” says Tolliver.
Women comprise just three percent of the eight million people in the US who work in construction and extraction occupations, according to 2017 data from theDepartment of Labor Statistics. The high-demand career with a median wage of $44,730 is expected to grow 11 percent by 2026, one of many trades that pay a living wage and don’t require a college degree. And while more women are joining the field—when you include sales and management jobs their ranks have increased by about 16 percent since 2010—there’s still a long way to go before women will be equally represented.
Tolliver never planned to get into construction. “I just had to take something. It was my only option,” she says. The two-month, pre-apprenticeship program run by the New York City non-profit called Nontraditional Employment for Women taught her everything she needed to know about getting a job in construction. “They teach you about the physicality of it, so you don’t look stupid, how to blend in a little bit,” says Tolliver, along with providing an introduction to the building trades, from carpentry to painting.
After years of struggling to find her calling, Tolliver says of her new career, “It’s not just a job, it’s more of a lifestyle.” A typical work day runs from 7AM to 3:30PM. As a laborer, “we actually do a little bit of everything,” whether it’s getting bricks and mortar for brick layers or demolishing the interior of the historic Liberty Theater in Times Square, Tolliver’s first job.
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