Ironworker Lissette Rossi can be on the same job all week, constructing the skeletons of buildings at 50 feet in the air with her union Local 399 in Camden. Still, after three days feeling comfortable with the height, she might, as she puts it, “get the heebie-jeebies.”
“You can’t be scared of heights, but you gotta respect them,” she said. “If you’re used to it, I say ‘get down.’ I let it check me every day because I respect it.”
Ironworking is a dangerous job. The highest Rossi has ever been suspended was 180 feet on site at the Ben Franklin Bridge, and she’s lost a good friend to a fall. Still, it’s her passion.
“I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true,” she said. “I do what I love, and I love what I do.”
Rossi is one of the few women ironworkers in New Jersey. In total, she said, there might be seven. Women make up 1.6 percent of ironworkers and 3.4 percent of the construction trades workforce, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Those 3.4 percent are laborers, painters, construction and maintenance workers, carpenters, pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, steamfitters, and electricians, along with their first-line supervisors, construction and building inspectors, and construction managers.
But as a valuable part of the workforce, women can help close the growing gap in skilled labor in the U.S. For every four people who leave the trades, only one replacement is supplied by an apprentice program, according to Go Build America.
One woman, an expert plumber in Staten Island, N.Y., wants to flip the script. Judaline Cassidy runs Tools & Tiaras, a summer camp for girls 6 to 16 to explore trade work and open their minds to opportunities in traditionally male-dominated trade professions.
Cassidy held her summer camp at the American Standard headquarters in Piscataway in August, and 10 girls and teenagers attended.
Sophie the Welder
“We had one girl, Sophie, who was really scared doing the welding, and she was crying. We teach the girls that we’re not going to force them to do anything they don’t want to do, and when they feel more comfortable, they can do it or not. The other girls spoke to her and she decided to do it, and when she did, Sophie was the best welder,” Cassidy said. “It’s very hard to make your weld flow in a nice puddle, and she would’ve never known she could do this if she didn’t try. Then she was loving it.”
Cassidy grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, and after struggling to find work when she came to the U.S., she stumbled into trade work. More than 20 years later, she calls her job as a union plumber “a game changer” and credits it for all she’s been afforded in life since — a house, a car, a pension, a 401k plan, and the ability to start a non-profit on her plumber’s salary.
“And it changed the lives of my family. My daughter, my stepsons, they were able to have some things other kids didn’t have the opportunity to have, all because of my job as a union plumber,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Labor projects 21 percent job growth for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters from 2012 to 2022. While students entering four year schools are graduating with massive amounts of college debt, American Standard Director of Brand Communications Debbie Drury said plumbing trade program graduates are starting out on better footing.
“Some [four year degree graduates] are living at home with their parents because they can’t find jobs and have debt, and the big key takeaway is young people don’t realize how much money a plumber can make. In most cases, you’re being paid while you’re being trained. There’s that aspect as well,” Drury said. “Having that job growth is something that young people need to be informed about when they’re making their decisions about what they’re going to go and study.”
The average annual salary for a plumber in New Jersey is $71,370, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Master Plumbers, a license that journeyman plumbers can apply for after one year of experience, can make up to $115,000.
Other trade workers also bring in real money: electricians, on average, make $71,660 in New Jersey. Carpenters make $63,230. Iron workers bring in $86,340.
“The pay definitely keeps you,” Rossi said, “And the seasons. Today was so gorgeous out. I love that. And to know that I’ve built something that will be there long after I’m gone. [There’s a] thrill in building things.”
Keeping up with ‘the boys’
Rossi’s territory is mostly south of Princeton, though she has worked jobs in Pennsylvania and Delaware. A Sixers season ticket holder, she’s proud of her work building the NBA team’s practice facility in Camden, and proud of other jobs like the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City and Virtua Hospital in Voorhees.
On 90 percent of jobs, she said, she’s the only woman on site. The other 10 percent of the time, she might run into a woman plumber, or a woman electrician. Ironworking is particularly strenuous, and she totes 30 to 60 pounds around on an average day in her tool belt. She’s also a welder, an additional certification recommended to her by her ironworking uncle.
“You find your niche. My uncle said, ‘learn to weld, its hard work but that’ll keep you on an even playing field with the boys.’ I might not be as strong as them, but I’ll f***ing weld circles around them,” she said. “I pride myself on that today.”
While the passion of women like Rossi and Cassidy for their jobs might encourage those in their inner circles to consider the building trades — Rossi’s good friend from high school just started her ironworking apprenticeship — how can more women be educated about the potential of such a career?
Beyond Tools & Tiaras, Cassidy has some ideas, and they all start with building awareness. School guidance counselors should be encouraged to present skilled trades as a post-secondary option to all students, and tradeswomen need to go into schools so that prospective students can be ex-posed to them.
“We need to not just go into the schools with white men, but we need to send more women – black women, white women, Latina women, so [prospective trade students] can see ‘oh, she looks like me, she’s my height and my size, I can do this, too,’” Cassidy said.
Media and advertising companies can also play a role, she said.
“So many products out there, Liquid Plumr, Roto Rooter, all the things for plumbers, only advertise men. [They] need to start switching it up and put a women in these ads. And in movies, what if you put women in that role, and the girls see a woman, and young boys get to envision their plumbers, electricians, HVAC as a woman? That can cause change, also.”