BUILDING THEIR CAREERS

Meet two women whose early work in residential construction helped build the future to enduring career success
By Trish Amundson

There is nothing like building a dream home. In the beginning stages of residential construction, the structure begins to take shape, and homeowners can better visualize themselves living in a brand-new house.

From pouring the foundation to framing the walls and installing electrical and plumbing systems, the skills of the tradespeople quickly become evident. The construction sector has long been dominated by men. Yet women are making important contributions in the industry, including residential building, where they work alongside their male counterparts swinging hammers, connecting wires, soldering pipes and coordinating work plans.
With grit and guts, Mandy Reese and Jodi Wiemerslage began their careers with jobs comprising the initial steps of the residential construction process, which eventually equipped them to forge new paths to their present roles.

EMPOWERING FEMALE BUILDERS

Educational programs and resources can support individuals entering and working in the construction field, including a female demographic that has shown increased interest. Steve Carlson, carpentry instructor at Rochester Community and Technical College, has seen an uptick of women in the program over his 20 years of teaching. The two-semester class of 18 to 20 students concentrates on residential carpentry, and the number of females has grown from one or two per class in earlier years to four this year. “They can do anything that the men can do,” he says.

The primary activity of the program is to build a house. The fast-paced learning experience includes building layout, foundation and rough framing, as well as installation of roofing, insulation, drywall and interior trim. With a placement rate of 90%, many students go on to a variety of construction-related careers. “Most of the female students join the local Carpenters Union,” says Carlson, “where they often work with steel studs and drywall, acoustic ceilings, cabinet installations and concrete form work.”

Mandy Reese
From residential framer to lead carpenter

Background: My husband, Al, and I moved from Rochester to our farm by Zumbrota about 10 years ago. We’ve been together for 17 years and have three children: Amber, Autumn and Lee. I grew up in Pine Island and graduated from high school there.  

How she started: In junior high, I signed up for shop classes and was hooked! After graduation, I started working with a home builder in Rochester framing houses. I had experience in working with everything from footings, framing layout, floor joists, rafters, sheeting, shingles, siding and windows. Later I was hired on at A G Strobel (a general contractor) and joined the Carpenters Union.

I completed a four-year apprenticeship training program and have worked for some great companies, including Benike Construction and, currently, Palmer Soderberg. 

Where she is now: I’m a lead carpenter at Palmer Soderberg and have been in the Carpenters Union for 20 years. I’m in charge of keeping the job organized and running on schedule. This includes working with our company estimators to make sure materials are ordered ahead of time and networking with other trades. I really enjoy the camaraderie with a lot of great tradesmen.

Career inspiration: I come from a long line of strong women in my family, and I like to think I get my strengths from my mom. She sacrificed a lot for our family and worked harder than anyone I know to give us what we needed. She is truly an inspiration, and I hope to be just like her!

Overcoming challenges: I work with a lot of great men and women in construction, in many different trades. Like any job, you must prove yourself and show you’re interested in being there. When people think they don’t have to work because companies just need to meet the minority percentages, it never ends well.

Motivation and support: Every day in construction is a challenge, and that’s why I was so drawn to it. There are a lot of projects I’m proud of, including our ceiling projects at the Mayo Civic Center and in the Siebens Building Patient Cafeteria at Mayo Clinic. You get a lot more accomplished when you work as a team. One of my motivations is teaching someone new the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years and listening to their ideas.
I might learn something from them too!

Encouraging others: My advice for women who want to work in the trades is to do it if you’re really interested. There are so many opportunities, and you will be expected to do the job you’re hired for. Although if you need help carrying, lifting or installing something, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. No one starts out knowing everything or able to do everything by themself. Nor are you expected to. If you’re trying and willing to learn, that’s what it’s all about.

Jodi Wiemerslage
From residential construction coordinator to electrical project manager/estimator

Background: I lived with my family in Caledonia until my sophomore year in high school, when we moved to Spring Valley to follow my father’s career. I stayed in the area and attended Rochester Community College, where I received my Associate of Arts degree. 

How she started: I was a residential construction coordinator for a home builder, and it was my responsibility to negotiate proposals, hire subcontractors and maintain the schedule for the houses. I learned pull scheduling (a scheduling technique), and this tool has become helpful to me in my current position as a project manager/estimator. My favorite part of the job was watching what was on the blueprints come to life. For the first time I felt I like I was being compensated based on my abilities.

Where she is now: I am an electrical project manager/estimator for Hunt Electric Corporation (where she has worked for 15 years) and am president of National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) Southeast MN Chapter 346. Becoming a project manager/estimator has brought many opportunities to learn new things. I oversee my projects’ budgets, labor needs, materials and safety. I also assist the field crew with obtaining the information they need to get the job done with updated drawings, product information and installation instructions. The electrical industry is always evolving, and I am fortunate to work for a company that embraces change. I work on a wide variety of projects including new construction, alterations, institutional, service, maintenance and alternative energy.   

Overcoming challenges: Attitudes are changing in the construction industry, but there still is a lot of work to do. The first step is for women to have the confidence to look to our industry as a quality way of life. There are countless levels and jobs that are overlooked. The exposure to open our world up needs to begin at a very young age. Children’s books that include illustrations and text about women in construction is a good start. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and industrial technology classes need to be brought back into the schools. High school career counselors must provide encouragement to apprenticeship programs.   

Encouraging others: I encourage women who are interested in the construction industry to look to the union halls for advice (for example, visit carpenterslocal1382.com). Reach out to the Work Force Development Center for free training and support. Inquire with our local technical colleges for introduction courses. Check out job shadowing opportunities with Rochester Area Builders. Get involved with organizations like the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC).

Organizations and resources for women in construction

Rochester Area Builders
Provides leadership, education, networking and information resources to members, the community and government officials.
rochesterareabuilders.com

Rochester Community and Technical College
Offers a carpentry program (and other construction-related programs) to prepare students for careers as carpenters in residential and commercial construction, factories, cabinet shops, and building maintenance fields.
rctc.edu/program/carpentry

National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), Southeast Minnesota
Supports and encourages the growth of women in the construction industry through networking, scholarships and educational opportunities. nawicsemn.org

Workforce Development, Inc.,
Southeast Minnesota
Offers career services and programs to help individuals overcome barriers and achieve employment.
workforcedevelopmentinc.org/programs