- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - When Alyce Widrig asks people to guess what she does for a living, they usually say a nurse or librarian.

She laughs.

“They don’t expect me to be a truck driver.”

But Widrig, fed up with her college experience, read in the newspaper a few years ago that there was a shortage of truck drivers.

“And if you applied with the state, you could get a grant and learn how to drive, so I applied, and I got it,” the Sioux Falls native told the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1FNhruB ).

This month, a new set of state-backed students will begin learning that they have qualified for Build Dakota scholarships. Unlike other incentive programs, this new opportunity - co-funded by a $25 million donation from T. Denny Sanford - offers full-ride scholarships to qualifying students pursuing technical education in occupations with worker shortages.

Those industries, and others outside the program experiencing worker shortages, do not traditionally attract a lot of women.

“Generally speaking, they’re still very much gender-stereotyped, but that is changing fairly quickly,” said Jim Rokusek, director of students at Southeast Technical Institute. “We’re starting to make good inroads but not so much in the technical trades.”

It’s not easy to find women in the Sioux Falls area who are certified plumbers or electricians, or who can service a furnace or air conditioner. They generally aren’t employed as auto mechanics or welders.

It’s hard enough finding men for the jobs, those in the industries said.

But those women who have pursued careers in these hands-on, in-demand fields report a lot of satisfaction. They say their male colleagues are supportive, and female customers welcome their services.

“I love it,” Widrig said. “I would never do anything else.”

Widrig, who has driven a ready-mix truck at Ace Ready Mix since the fall of 2013, is part of a growing number of women in Sioux Falls with a career in the construction industry.

“They always say the first year in trucking is the hardest,” she said. “Once you get through it with no accidents, that helps.”

Driving an over-the-road truck took her across the country but got a little nerve-racking and lonely, especially when she broke down for three days in a New Mexico desert.

The job at Ace brought her home.

“It’s a smaller truck, but . they’re top-heavy,” Widrig said. “You’re always paying attention. You can’t be turning corners too fast.”

Some jobs take 15 minutes, and others take four hours, she said.

“I like the challenge. You’re always doing something.”

She has never seen another female ready-mix driver but calls her male colleagues the best part of the job.

“I would consider them family. Being here is basically your home. They make it fun. They know I’m a female, and I know there are things I can’t do, but there are things they can’t do and I can. They don’t treat me different at all.”

Ace Ready Mix is part of Myrl & Roy’s Paving Inc., where Lori Marken works as a hot plant loader operator in the asphalt plant.

She has been there 10 years after starting a couple of years before that on the gravel crew, where the foreman taught her how to run a loader.

“The HR lady saw me in the loader and two weeks later offered me a job in one of the gravel pits as a loader operator,” said Marken, who grew up on a farm and held office jobs previously.

She drove a tractor on the farm and had been in a loader only a half-dozen times before she took the job.

“Once you got the hang of it, it’s not that bad,” she said. “It’s just trying to figure out which lever does what. A lot of the people are welcoming, and they help you out when you need it.”

She also gets a look of awe when people learn what she does for a living.

“They’re like, ‘No, really?’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do. Kind of like playing in a sandbox.’”

Mryl & Roy’s co-owner Patty Nour praises both women.

“We’re really lucky to have them,” she said. “I don’t think the issue is that construction companies haven’t looked for women. But most women haven’t thought of construction as a career path.”

Linda Beck Halliburton had that in mind when she invited a construction management class from Southeast Tech to tour the AeroStay Hotel, which is under construction at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.

“I was pleasantly surprised there were three or four women out there,” said Halliburton, vice president at Beck & Hofer Construction, the general contractor on the project. “There definitely are more in the industry, certainly there are more women entering the field and taking on leadership roles in the field. We also see it at the trades.”

Women also excel in roles that require good communication and planning, such as project management, Halliburton said.

The students also saw Amy Hernandez working on the building. A professional painter, she started by painting a room in her California house several years ago.

Her husband, Saul, also a painter, took her to help paint a customer’s house.

“And after that we started getting more and more business,” said Hernandez, who moved to Sioux Falls nearly three years ago.

They work for BK Painting.

“I like being outside. I guess I like the male work. I like all the hard work,” Hernandez said. “Every day, I do something different. One day, I might do trim and windows, and the next day might be walls, sanding, caulking or filling holes.”

Subcontractors for the construction industry don’t tend to draw many women.

BK Painting owner Brad Kohlhof has had two women work for him in the 25 years he has been in business, including Hernandez.

“She’s just as good as any guy,” he said, adding the nature of the work deters a lot of women.

“It’s hot and dirty, and I think that’s the main reason. It’s hard,” he said. “I just ask around (for workers) and hope for the best. Usually, the people I find are drifting between jobs.”

But Hernandez said she’s in the profession to stay.

“I love doing this,” she said. “I feel like this is my career.”

The more industry can drive connections to such jobs, the more students will be inclined to consider them, said Rokusek at Southeast Tech.

“If you go in a (high school) counselor’s office, they’re overwhelmed,” he said. “They don’t have time to do career planning they once did, so exposure to some of these nontraditional fields isn’t happening as it once was. It’s being driven from industry.”

Even growing up in a male-dominated industry doesn’t necessarily encourage a similar career path for women.

Jackie Sorensen’s grandfather and great-uncle started Thorson Heating Inc. in 1943. Her father, George, bought it in 1986. Growing up, Sorensen spent time in the shop but didn’t go into the field where much of the work takes place.

She said she “definitely” wasn’t planning on getting into the family business but ended up working there one summer after she found she “really hated the college life.”

Her father took her out on calls, “and I started really liking it,” said Sorensen, who entered the HVAC program at Southeast Tech the next fall.

That was in 2010. She was the first woman to complete the program. There haven’t been any since.

“I’ve never understood why there aren’t more,” Sorensen said. “I do understand because it was intimidating starting school being the only woman in the class. It’s just having that technical knowledge. It’s not brute work.”

There is no typical day. She helps with bookkeeping and advertising but often is in the field serving customers.

“I get out. I always get to meet new people, hear stories, tell stories,” she said. “I get to see people’s houses, and it’s just neat. In one day, you could go work on a heater for a no-heat call and you could work on an air conditioner in the afternoon.”

Some hot days can be tough to take working outside, “but then other days it’s just gorgeous and part of you wants to rub everyone’s nose in it that you’re outside and they’re sitting at a desk,” she said.

The industry has a shortage of qualified technicians, Sorensen said.

“More women in this industry would be beneficial,” she said. “Women have better attention to detail, and I joke with my dad that with these furnaces getting smaller and more compact it’s easier for me to work on them than my dad because he can’t fit his hands inside anymore.”

The few women who are in the field find they develop a rapport with female customers that can be hard for men to match, she added.

“You’re typically in the home talking to another woman who’s home during the day or even a couple, but they trust women. 99.999 percent are happy to see me and so happy there’s a woman in the industry.”

Amy Sorlien-Lee had a similar experience during her decade working in the field as a certified electrician.

“People just would say it’s so cool to see a woman out in the field. For the most part, people thought it was great,” she said.

Her father, Tor, founded Sorlien Electric Inc. in 1984. She joined 10 years later as a temporary summer job, learning basic wiring and working on new houses. She had been in financial services doing collections but found working as an electrician offered more of a sense of accomplishment.

“You really can see the progress you’ve made,” Sorlien-Lee said. “I learned everything on the job.”

Her fellow electricians felt like family, she said.

“Like brothers to me, and they were very protective of me, so I was pretty comfortable.”

Sorlien-Lee now works as an estimator and business development manager for the company. In her time at Sorlien, there have been two female electricians. She hasn’t seen any working for other contractors. Statewide, less than 1 percent of certified electricians appear to be women, according to a list from the South Dakota Electrical Commission.

“There’s a stereotype these are men’s jobs, but it’s not just women who are not looking at them. It’s young men, too,” Sorlien-Lee said. “It’s not even on their radar. We really need to start talking to kids in junior high and elementary that you can make a good living, not just boys, but girls, too.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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