Madelyn Broadus first became interested in construction when she visited a house that a friend had built. When she saw the place, she was instantly impressed. It was just a small demonstration project, but it had all the features of a fully functioning house, complete with working electricity. A team of women had constructed the project.
Madelyn was just getting out of recovery and looking for a new career move. She thought to herself, “I bet I could do this!” She decided to join Operation Blueprint, a pre-apprenticeship program that prepares women to join the construction industry. She went on to join Sheet Metal Union Local 105, and after four and a half years of rigorous training as an apprentice, she reached journey-level status. Madelyn says, “I thought it was a very powerful thing, to build a structure that lasts a hundred years.”
The face of the construction industry is changing and Madelyn Broadus, as an African American woman, is part of this shift. Particularly in a tough economy, where many returning jobs are temporary and low-wage, people from low-income communities need access to stable, long-term careers. Construction is one of the few industries that provide good career pathways to people from all backgrounds, including veterans, those with criminal records, women and minorities.
Madelyn has a warm, generous laugh that wins you over right when you meet her. She is a three-time survivor of breast cancer, which hit her in bouts beginning in 1995. Yet through the support of the apprenticeship system and her union, within seven years she was able to make her way to journey-level status, gaining benefits and a middle class salary.
Unfortunately, right as she reached journey-level status in 2009, the economy took a nosedive, Madelyn has been struggling to get consistent work ever since. The economic downturn hit the construction industry particularly hard, and workers across all of the construction trades have felt the pain. Madelyn had a four-month job earlier this year, but before that she was out of work for 24 months. That’s a long time, especially with kids to support. After Madelyn’s brother passed away, she and her sister took on the responsibility to care for his three kids—Robert Junior (14 years old), Jeremiah (10 years old), and Emily (7 years old). It’s been tough for both sisters to support the kids during the recession. When Madelyn gets her unemployment check every month, half of it goes to her sister for the kids.
Over 14 skilled trades exist within the construction industry. Sheet metal is just one of those 14 trades, which involves fabricating, assembling and installing sheet metal products such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Sheet metal workers also fabricate and install metal roofs, kitchen equipment, conveyors, and chutes. Here’s how Madelyn describes a day on the job, which typically starts at six in the morning.
Audio transcription: In sheet metal, actually what we’re doing is installing heat and air conditioning systems for commercial and industrial buildings. And you can do some outside stuff, like the outside of the Staples center, that’s architectural sheet metal. The majority of my work was in installing the duct work. You’re climbing up and down ladders all the time and you have about 15 pounds on your hips, you carry the duct work, which is at least, minimum 4 feet high, it could be longer. And so you’re climbing and you’re holding the duct work, and you have to have your drill motor handy, because once you carry it up there and you put it in, you have to put a screw in it, so that it will stay up. Then you go back down the whole duct work and then you put the seismic wire on, which prevents it from, if there’s an earthquake, from falling down. You definitely have to seal the ducts so that the air can get to the different rooms of the building, and not leak out before it gets there. An that’s what they teach you at apprenticeship school. Safety is always one of the main things they always teach– because you only have one body.
It’s intensely physical, high skill work. Construction has historically been a man’s job. Madelyn is usually one of the few women, if not the only woman, on a jobsite. She is also often one of the few African American workers on the job. In 2010, African Americans made up only 5.5% of all construction workers. And despite a 73.5% growth in the number of women in construction over the past 25 years, they still compose just 9% of the workforce.
On the job, Madelyn immediately volunteers for the difficult jobs just to prove that she can do it. “You’re like less than .01 percent of the population. And you have to watch out… because it only takes one guy to say, oh Broadus sucks, and then they all think that Broadus sucks and then they don’t want to work with me anymore. So for every new job, you have to prove yourself again.”
Many different groups are working to confront these challenges. Within the Building and Construction Trades unions, some locals do targeted outreach to recruit women, minorities, and workers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many community groups and policymakers also push for policies like project labor agreements, which are job-site contracts that typically have hiring targets for specific groups, like veterans, disadvantaged workers, and local workers.
Madelyn’s experiences led her to join the Black Worker Center in Los Angeles, an organization that addresses the Black jobs crisis in the African American community. She has been volunteering there for almost two years. The Black Worker Center’s message resonated with her. “We have disproportionately high unemployment in the black community and we don’t get support for things we need in our neighborhoods,” Madelyn says. “Even if it’s something as simple as replacing a streetlight–Why does a richer neighborhood get it replaced rather than mine? Individuals are not to blame, it’s really part of a system that needs to be fixed so that everyone’s on equal footing.”
Though she is still out of work, Madelyn believes in the construction industry’s ability to provide second chances and an opportunity to make a good living. She is persistent. “When I got cancer [a third time], I thought, oh this is it—three strikes and you’re out, right? But my God didn’t play baseball. When I got through it, I thought, well God must have a job for me here.”
Post, photo, and audio by Stefanie Ritoper. Stefanie works for the California Construction Academy, a project of the UCLA Labor Center. The team recently published a book called Beyond Green Jobs: Building Lasting Opportunities in Energy Efficiency, which makes the case for why green jobs should provide pathways to good, accessible careers. Download the book and like California Construction Academy on Facebook. Read more about the Black Worker Center.