The majority of people in the room seemed to be women, and many wore proud smiles on their faces. They were attending the graduation ceremony of the first all-female Green Energy Training Services (GETS) pre-apprenticeship cohort held by Berkeley non-profit organization Rising Sun Energy Center, and the room at John F. Kennedy University’s Berkeley campus was buzzing with excitement.
Dubbed “Women Build,” the program trains women for union jobs in construction and other skill-based industries traditionally employing men. It launched on March 16, running the course of three months. Nineteen women formed the first graduating class, and their friends and families watched them with pride as each was presented a “diploma” certifying that she had completed her training.
GETS program graduate Tyi Johnson read the names of the graduates to thunderous applause, and praised them as “pioneers who achieved what many said couldn’t be done.” She finished with a Maya Angelou quote, asking the women to keep pressing on toward their goals, and to keep in touch with one another. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it,” said Johnson, quoting the celebrated author.
The program had been designed to address the lack of female participation in trades that call for a knowledge of heavy machinery, including the construction industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, about 9.3 percent of the employees in construction were women. As small the percentage may seem, it has more than tripled when compared to the mere 2.6 percent in 2013, only two years ago. Rising Sun had already been running the GETS program, but this year after several months of planning, staffers decided to launch the all-women program in hopes of leveling the warped gender ratio in construction.
Aside from learning how to use power tools, the women were taught how to ready themselves for job applications and interviews in construction-related fields. They also learned about the basics of workplace safety rules.
Construction instructor John Shurtz had taught a series of workshops, and said that at first some people would blunder or act nonplussed when handling power tools. “These are hard skills that take years to cultivate, and you won’t get this opportunity where you’re out there in the real world,” said Shurtz. He recalled a past incident when some women appeared scared of a power saw he was using in class. “See, we stopped at moments like that and learned from each other’s mistakes. Each of you were willing enough to stop, let me point out a mistake, and learn from it,” Shurtz said with a proud beam.
Olympia Bustamante, one of the members of the graduating class, said she had moved to the East Bay to stay with her mother and take care of her sister, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. One day, feeling overwhelmed and lost, she decided to take a walk in Richmond, and boarded a bus after walking around in circles. “Somehow, I found myself in front of the Rising Sun Energy Center. I saw this sign that said: Women Build,” Bustamante said.
Thinking to herself that she had nothing to lose, she pushed open the door to Rising Sun’s office in Berkeley and promptly enrolled in the eight-week course. “I did something for myself, and this journey is worthwhile. Now, I celebrate not the end of my journey, but the start of a new one,” she said.
The graduates said they formed a bond while learning the ropes of construction work basics. “Friends made here mean the most to me. I feel the friendship would last a lifetime, and together we have made meaning,” said class member Jenny Duschenes, who is pursuing a career as an electrician.
Based on the success of the first all-women GETS class, Rising Sun staffers are planning to make the program a regular feature. “I’ve heard that many women, friends and family of this group, are excited to enroll already,” said Johnson.