Meet Jenny French, Sheet Metal Apprentice

Meet Jenny French, Sheet Metal Apprentice

By John Rumler
After graduating Sam Barlow high school in Gresham in 2000, Jenny McClatchey was hired as an electronic assembler. The money was good, but the work was mind-numbingly repetitive. “The minutes and hours dragged on and on,” she recalls. “It was excruciatingly boring.” Later, she did marketing for Visa and also became an assistant to a loan processor, but both positions left French dissatisfied. Two years ago, she was between jobs when an HVAC specialist came to fix the central air conditioning system at her parent’s home. After speaking with the technician, Jenny learned the company was hiring. Within a week she was driving a company truck and learning about furnaces and ventilation systems. “I loved it. I jumped in and gave it my all,” she says.

Jenny, now 24, is enrolled in a sheet metal apprenticeship program. Her employer states that, “Jenny is smart, eager to learn, and has a great attitude. We’d love to hire more employees like her. Outside of the electricians sector, women are nowhere near reaching their potential in the building trades. If we can get more high quality people like Jenny, even if they are entry-level, we’re happy to provide the training.”

So far, about two-thirds of her work is inside, but she has toiled on rooftops in sweltering heat as well as in freezing weather. Jenny, who is half Vietnamese, spends most of her workday helping install ductwork and insulation, but sometimes, during a “crane pick,” she gets to guide the crane operator with hand signals. “I do grunt work, but so do a lot of foremen,” she says.

When she completes her apprenticeship, Jenny might pursue more training in construction management or engineering, but right now she has a full plate. The best thing about her job, Jennifer says, is the variety and the team she works with. “I like moving around, going to different worksites, exploring new things. I can’t stand doing the same thing.”

McClatchey enjoys being the only woman on a crew and says that she’s never had a problem asking for help. She says her job isn’t for everyone, and certainly not for all women, but she calls it the best experience she’s ever had. “It’s a mans world and you have to adjust to it instead of expecting others to adjust to you. I like the joking and the bantering and I love being one of the guys. When they give me a hard time I give it right back,” she says.

Photo credit: Northwest College of Construction

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Tool Box for Success

Do you have the tools you need to succeed in construction?
  • Attach yourself to a journey-worker on the job site and learn from them
  • Focus to get ahead if you want to stay in the field
  • Don’t take anything personally
  • Be good at your job
  • Work up your physical strength
  • Realize that there are no short-cuts
  • Enjoy the experience
  • Make friends with everyone
  • Go with the flow
  • Have a thick skin
  • Know who you are
  • Employ good time-management skills and good listening skills
  • Have a good learning attitude
  • Know that you are the competition
  • Don’t give up
  • Study hard at school
  • Be ready for a lot of work
  • Listen to what the foreman is saying
  • Learn how to take orders well
  • Learn how to take initiative
  • Be detail-oriented but do the job fast at the same time
  • Maintain good communication and ask questions
  • Know your stuff!
  • Be physical, work out
  • Work harder than everybody else, don’t talk a lot, pay attention, show up on time, be dependable and don't phone in sick unless you absolutely need to!
  • Have fun!!
Barriers to employment for women in construction

Although this list is not all-inclusive, it was included to give an indication of the kinds of barriers some women will face, and overcome.
  • Biased or discriminatory hiring practices
  • Stereotypical perceptions of women's abilities
  • Isolation of women in male-dominated worksites
  • Unequal pay for women performing similar jobs as male co-workers
  • Various forms of harassment (CLMPC, 1990; SPR Associates, 2002A; Grzetic, 1998;)
  • There is a lack of diversity training among co-workers, including clarity around the issue of employment equity. (WITT-NN, 1999)
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of education and fundamental skills
  • Lack of informal mentors to develop an interest in the trades
  • Lack of management / supervisor leadership in setting an appropriate tone in terms of acceptance of women in male-dominated workplaces. WITT-Alberta, 2000)
  • Physical Strength Limitations
  • Stereotypes / Sexism / Perception of women on job site
  • Lack of information available about trades as a career option
  • Lack of daycare/difficulty with work / life balance
Getting around Barriers

  • Recognize the friendly faces at your jobsite
  • Dress appropriately for the trade
  • Identify something your company does a lot of and get good at it
  • Use common sense
  • Find a mentor
  • Become good at job hunting
  • Network
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