Women in Construction
by Paige Townley
Robins & Morton celebrates the women who bring value to the company and the industry.
“The construction industry needs women, and women need opportunities,” noted Dr. Mittie Cannon, director of training and workforce development with the Power and Industrial division of Robins & Morton.
Because of that strong belief, Cannon spends much of her time sharing with other women opportunities they can take advantage of in the construction industry. “The first thing many women think about when it comes to construction is digging ditches and hammering nails,” she said. “That’s not what defines it—not at all. You have to look beyond that at the benefits of the industry.”
Cannon herself has been in the construction industry for more than 15 years. Rising through the ranks of a craft professional to her current position, she sees the many benefits that come with a career in the industry. “Those benefits come in so many different forms—high wages, travel, professional growth,” she said. “To me, as a woman, it has been more than just a job. This has been a career, and I don’t see where there is such a thing as topping out for me. I don’t see a ceiling because I can go as far as my desires and aspirations will allow me. I am the only reason I could not go beyond the point I’m at right now. More women need to realize that opportunities like this are out there.”
One reason Cannon believes more women don’t take advantage of opportunities within the construction industry is because they don’t see more women in the field. “They don’t see people in it who look like them, so they need to see more of that,” she emphasized. “We have to do a better job at how we educate women about what we do in the industry and who we really are. It’s important for me to help create opportunities for other women. I want women to succeed. Someone paved the way for me, so I want to do the same for someone else. There’s room for more women in this industry.”
Here, three women at Robins & Morton share their stories about getting into the industry and what they have learned.
Shanice Kirkland’s journey into the field began much differently than most. As a child, she never really had any ideas or knowledge about welding, the construction industry or even living in America.
Kirkland was born in Jamaica. When she was just 10 years old her mother passed away, leaving Kirkland and her younger brother and sister in the care of her father. “My dad couldn’t really take care of us because he was working so much, and I was too young to take care of the family,” Kirkland explained. To help the siblings stay together—the family feared they might end up in foster homes—her uncle brought all three children to the United States in hopes of adoption. Luckily, a couple from her uncle’s church adopted all three siblings. “Coming to the United States, I never knew there was a place like this,” Kirkland said. “There have been a lot of different experiences I’ve had here that I would not have had in Jamaica.”
One such experience: college. Kirkland graduated from high school with an occupational diploma and went on to attend Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama. Because of the type diploma she received, she had specific occupational choices she could pursue. One of those was welding. “I prefer working with my hands, I always have, so I decided to try welding,” Kirkland said. “Once I tried it, I fell in love with it. I saw it as something I could really do in life.”
For the last year and a half, Kirkland has worked as a pipe fitter helper at Robins & Morton, helping welders out in the field with whatever they need. “I have learned so much from watching the welders and going through the welding training class,” Kirkland said. “If I don’t understand something, I have trained welders who show me the correct way to do something so that when I leave the training class and take the test I will know exactly what I should be doing to succeed.”
Kirkland is taking the knowledge and experience she has received thus far and is not only preparing to take the test to become a welder but also competing in the National Craft Championships, which were held April 29 through May 2 in Birmingham. Kirkland competed in the structural welding competition. “I’ve been training a few months now,” she said. “I never thought I would be doing something like this, but it’s very exciting.”
Kirkland is also hoping that her experiences in joining the ranks of the construction industry encourage other women to explore the possibilities that exist for them. “I want to show other women in the world that they can do it too,” she said. “Women can do welding or something else that interests them in the construction industry. Try it out and see what you can accomplish.”
Twenty-one-year-old Bridget Riley joined Robins & Morton about a year ago as an electrical helper after graduating from Tennessee Technology Center in Athens, Tennessee, with a degree in industrial electricity. Early on, even in school, Riley realized joining the industry meant a little more scrutiny when it came to proving herself capable. “In class, the instructors seemed to want more out of me than the men, and I was determined to succeed,” she said. “I think it was a push for me to be good at what I was planning on doing.”
Riley used that added scrutiny as motivation to prove herself when she entered the field. Her first job at Robins & Morton—working on the Olin Chlor Alkali-Memberane Conversion construction project in Charleston, Tennessee—provided the opportunity to do just that. “The men wanted to help me do the work, but I wouldn’t allow it,” Riley said. “It took a lot for me, but I wanted to prove my point to them.”
While showing co-workers she could perform in the environment she herself called “tough,” Riley quickly saw how different life in the field was compared to what she thought it would be in the classroom. “I discovered it’s a lot of work,” she said. “There was a lot more to it than the book said. I never thought I had to climb 300 feet in the air pulling wire. It was an adrenaline rush. Now, I’m all about climbing on some beams!”
From that first experience on the job site, Riley has continued to perfect her skills and appreciate the opportunities her newfound career is providing. Since September 2013, she has been working as an electrical helper pulling wire on the CARBO plant in Millen, Georgia. As construction on the project moves forward, Riley—a self-professed perfectionist—continues to hone her skills and work towards growth in the field. “I want to become a journeyman and then go to work on a nuclear plant,” she said. “I know I can do it as long as I set my mind to it. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t do a man’s job.”
With her family owning a hardware company, Christena Holcombe grew up knowing about construction, but never really seeing it as a potential career opportunity. “My grandfather and great grandfather were always building things in the shop,” she said. “I always had an interest in what they were doing, but I didn’t know where I wanted to take it, if anywhere at all.”
In high school, Holcombe realized she was much more math and science oriented, qualities that would equate to a career in the construction industry, but she still didn’t see how the two might fit together for her. Her high school guidance counselor actually introduced her to the idea of engineering. “I thought about going into business, but at the same time I knew I wanted to do something more than that,” Holcombe said. “At that time, I didn’t even know what engineering was. I knew people built structures, but I didn’t think I could be one of those people.”
After doing a little research on her own, it didn’t take long for Holcombe to see her future in engineering. She began applying to engineering schools and attended Vanderbilt University to become a civil engineer. “There are so many different directions you can take with civil engineering, especially being a female,” she said.
Upon graduating, Holcombe took her skills and degree to Robins & Morton, where she has worked for about a year. “When I graduated, I didn’t initially consider construction because I felt it was something a woman wouldn’t do. So when I got a job here, I knew very little about construction. I had visited construction sites but had never been on one long term. But from the minute I stepped onto the job site I knew it was where I needed to be. To see something being built from the ground up and knowing you had a direct part in it is amazing.”
While still on her first job site, Holcombe is excited about where her career will take her as a civil engineer. “The possibilities are endless, especially in something like construction,” Holcombe said. “You are your only limitation.” She is also pleased with the camaraderie she has experienced with other women in the industry. “There are more women out here than you would expect,” she said. “We all have an appreciation for each other, so we are able to stick together. And it’s very encouraging to see the women who are higher up and how much they have achieved. It’s quite inspiring.”