Persistence, female mentors keys to women succeeding in the trades
By SHERI GASSAWAY
The road to becoming a carpenter wasn’t an easy one for Beth Barton. In her early years, many job searches resulted in being laughed at, hung up on and told to go away because she was a woman.
But she persevered, and today she’s a superintendent at Tarlton Corporation. As president of Missouri Women in Trades, the Carpenters Local 1596 member uses her 13 years of experience as a woman in the industry to mentor other women in the trades and those considering joining.
She is also passionate about promoting the construction industry as a career choice for girls and young women and has spearheaded several Girl Scout badge days that teach girls construction skills and help build confidence. She is also an instructor for middle school girls at the Ranken Tools for Success construction camp.
“The trades are rewarding careers for women, and the need for workers is increasing,” Barton said. “While there continues to be barriers and obstacles facing women in the industry, there are also more opportunities for us than ever before and with persistence and the help of a female mentor, women can succeed.”
BEFORE JOINING THE TRADES
Before deciding to become a carpenter, Barton was attending St. Charles Community College in pursuit of a degree in nursing. An aptitude test in high school pointed her toward the field, and all her relatives were employed in the healthcare industry working as pharmacists and doctors.
“I was two years into the nursing program and wasn’t really loving it,” Barton said. “I was also a single, young mother who had just realized my son’s dad was not going to be a reliable co-parent. That’s when I became aware that I had to be independent and care for my son entirely.”
Barton had some help from her family, but she knew she couldn’t continue working overnights as a CNA making $9 an hour, going to school and caring for her son. Between house and truck payments, she could barely make ends meet, which eliminated daycare as an option.
CHANGING CAREER DIRECTIONS
“That’s when I asked myself, ‘What do I like to do for fun?’,” she said. “That was the biggest question I had ever really asked myself in my life.”
Barton said she liked working on her truck and considered being a mechanic. However, that position would require her going back to school to get a six-month certificate. She also liked crafts – woodworking crafts in particular – so she decided she wanted to be a carpenter.
“I opened the St. Louis phone book and starting with the letter ‘A, I began calling the contractors with my spiel: ‘I’m strong, I’m tough, I grew up on a farm around horses’,” she said. “I called about 50 contractors, and people were so ridiculous and rude – they laughed at me and hung up on me.”
When she got to the end of the letter “B” in the phone book, Barton had some luck. She called BSI Contractors, and Jay Brennan took the time to talk to her about becoming a carpenter.
“He asked me if I was in a union,” Barton said. “I had no idea what a union was, and he explained to me what I needed to do, which was basically apply for an apprenticeship at the hall. He gave me names, phone numbers and addresses and I did everything he told me to do in the exact order.”
In May 2003, Barton got a letter of intent from BAM Contracting and began her carpentry classes. But the company never put her to work. Finally, that August her employment counselors found her a small two-week fixture job, which helped her get hired at Fred Weber working in commercial construction.
Barton worked at Fred Weber for about a year and then was laid off. It was 2004 – the boom of the residential construction market.
“Men always start out in residential framing, and I wanted to get that experience,” Barton said. “I talked to my employment counselor about it, and he told me he thought I should stick to trim. So they encouraged me to do the easy work, and I stuck up for myself and said, “How am I going to be respected by anyone if I don’t know how to build a house?”
The counselor told Barton she could do what she wanted, but it wouldn’t be easy for her to break into the residential side of the business. For a solid month, Barton showed up on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 a.m. in Chesterfield where four major homebuilders were hiring carpenters on a daily basis.
“I was standing in line with between seven and 15 carpenters looking for work,” she said. The men would get hired and go in. I’d get to the front of the hiring line, and they’d tell me they didn’t have any work for me so I’d go down to the next construction site and try there. They same thing kept happening.”
At first, she said she thought she needed to arrive earlier, but that wasn’t the case.
“One day, I got there and the hiring manager said they didn’t have any work and then they hired the guy after me,” she said. “Another day, one of the managers I’d built a rapport with threw his hands up in the air in frustration and flat out told me he would never hire a woman.”
BACK TO WORK
Soon afterward, Barton was hired back at Fred Weber to work on the Metrolink Station expansion project in Maplewood. The job required 10-hour shifts and at the time, parents couldn’t leave their children in daycare for more than 10 hours. Fortunately, Barton found a daycare that was right across the street from the jobsite.
Eight days later, Barton was laid off. She told the daycare director that she had to pull her son out of the program because she couldn’t afford it.
“She was really impressed that I was a carpenter and asked if I’d ever thought about building houses because her husband was a superintendent at Fischer and Frichtel,” Barton said. “I told her I would love to build houses.”
Barton had two different interviews with the company and was hired with about seven other carpenters. She worked there about three years, and then new home construction went down significantly. That was where she met her husband Jim, who is also a carpenter.
THE RISE TO SUPERINTENDENT
In 2012, Barton began working at Tarlton. After just a year with the company, she was offered a promotion to superintendent, a step up which she said “terrified” her at first.
“It was a hard decision for me because I knew it was not going to be well-received,” Barton said. “I was new, and there were guys that that worked there for five and 10 years, and I was going to be relying on other people to help me.”
On the other hand, Barton said she knew it would be really good for her career and for other women in the industry, so she went for it.
“It was nerve wrecking,” she said. “I over-prepared and followed all rules very strictly because if anything went wrong, it was on me. But I’m glad I made the decision.”
Tarlton wasn’t the only organization to recognize Barton’s leadership and passion for the industry. In 2014, the producer of “Hard Hatted Woman” contacted her about appearing in the film, the first feature-length documentary about women breaking down gender barriers in blue-collar construction trades.
“I was the first of six women nationwide to be filmed,” Barton said. “They came out and spent a week following me around at work, and they stayed at my house and interviewed my kids.”
Barton said the film is still in production, and she is still not sure she will make the cut to be included in the documentary. However, the producer has assured her she will be in promotional materials for the film.
Most recently, Barton was honored with the Workforce Development Award from the Construction Forum of St. Louis for her work in making a difference in young people’s futures.
In addition to her work with the Girl Scouts and the Ranken construction camp, Barton oversaw a project at Washington University last summer and spoke to students in the Wash U Architect camp sharing her perseverance as a female in the construction industry and encouraging students to never give up.
Barton graciously accepted the award saying, “I never would have survived without the support of other tradeswomen mentoring me and certain good people on the job.”
HOW MoWIT CAN HELP
Barton, who has served as MoWIT president for eight years, said the environment for women in the construction field hasn’t changed all that much since she’s been in the industry and that finding work can sometimes be difficult.
“It’s a case-by-case situation for women because it’s individual people making the hiring decisions,” she said.
That’s where MoWIT can help, Barton said. The non-profit organization provides tradeswomen with mentoring opportunities, job information, referrals and support groups, and it is free to join. For more information on MoWIT, call 314-963-3200 or visit mowit.org.