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A Different Type Of Career Ladder Women Helping Change Face Of Area’s Construction Industry

The 14-foot wooden ladder may outweigh electrician Courtney Battermann but is no match for her; it goes where she slings it.

Leann Hoerner studied to be a paralegal but works instead as a construction laborer. She’ll soon start a carpenter apprenticeship program.

Machelle York parlayed a bachelor of business administration degree from Gonzaga University into a cushy job with Marriott Management Services. She quit to become a wireman apprentice.

That’s right, a wire-MAN, she says. Political correctness isn’t allowed on a construction site.

The three women are helping to put the finishing touches on the Spokane Transit Authority’s downtown bus station.

Quietly, they’re helping to change the face of Spokane’s construction industry.

Noble principles like equal rights and feminism are fine. But these women are after the cash and the physical challenge.

Nationwide, the number of women in construction has doubled over the past two decades to 8.6 percent, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

But in conservative Spokane, gender equity watchdog Jan Polek can practically count on two hands the number of women who wear hard hats for a living.

Polek works at the Institute of Extended Learning, an arm of the Community Colleges of Spokane. The organization funnels women into non-traditional jobs, those with 75 percent or more men.

Battermann, a three-year electrician with Aztech Electric Inc., says she’s doing a job that a lot of men can’t do.

“It’s a great career opportunity for women who are serious and want to work. But not if you’re afraid of getting dirty or breaking a nail,” Battermann says.

The 28-year-old former grocery store assistant manager is helping to wire the mammoth transit center at Riverside and Wall. She followed nearly all the men in her family into the construction business.

Husband Terry Battermann, a superintendent with Goebel General Contractor, was less than thrilled when Courtney announced her change in career direction.

“I’m all for it now,” he says. “But with her being a woman in an allmale trade and knowing how construction workers are toward females, I was worried. She’s got a lot of guts.”

All three women on the bus station job say the men have behaved appropriately and treated them like three of the guys - the way they want it.

No favoritism here.

Battermann’s motto: show up, shut up and do the job. That does more for women’s rights than women who fail in the construction business and make it more difficult for the next one who comes along, she says.

In fact, women union members of Local 73 voted against changing the job title of wireman to wirewoman.

“I don’t want people to say I’m good for a woman. I want to be a good wireman,” says York, 37, in her first year of a five-year electrician’s apprenticeship with Aztech.

Hoerner, 25, has worked as a laborer for Shea Construction Co. nearly two years and soon will start a four-year carpentry program.

Like many newcomers to the construction trade, she spends most of her time cleaning up construction debris and keeping the work area uncluttered. It’s not just a matter of safety, but good public relations.

The $20.6 million bus station project is visible and controversial. It has been plagued by construction delays and cost overruns. But even critics concede the station will be opulent when it opens in late June.

Battermann, Hoerner and York are part of the reason why. Coveralls and tool belts, white T-shirts and jeans, heavy boots and hard hats look more comfortable on them than on Tim Allen.

“There’s a great sense of accomplishment with being a woman in a male-dominated field,” such as construction, computers or other technical work, Polek says.

Not only do those jobs pay 40 percent more than womendominated fields like nursing, food service and clerical, they build selfesteem, she says.

“There’s a certain chutzpah which is really reflected in their demeanor,” Polek says.

Hoerner carries a pack of Camels in the waistband of her jeans.

She could be wearing a power suit, carrying a briefcase and helping research and draft legal documents.

Bore-ing.

“I’d rather do this than sit on my butt,” Hoerner says.

Battermann enjoys the camaraderie and the thrills.

She’s learned to respect electricity and what it can do.

“One slip and zap, you’re dead. I love that danger,” Battermann says.

York, a divorced mother of three, traded a white collar for a blue one.

Her 10- and 11-year-old daughters are even talking about playing football next year.

“I’ve proven to them you can do whatever you want to do. You just need desire,” York says.

“In 50 years, I want to drive down the street with my grandchildren and point to this building and say, ‘See what I’ve done.”’


 
Tags: Employment

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