We’re continuing our support of Women In Construction Week with a story that has little to do with our organization. Rather, we hope this blog inspires women to keep lifting each other up and making new connections. You never know when one story will relate to another considering a career in the trades.
While Sonia Shepard stands just 5’ 3” tall, her petite frame radiates positive energy and strength. Her life story is filled with exceptional highs and unsettling lows, nonetheless, Sonia has never stopped trying to pursue a better life.
At the age of 15, Sonia recognized that working with her hands made herself and others happy. In middle and high school, Sonia excelled in athletics and preferred woodworking and shop classes over home economics.
“Ask anyone that knows me, and they’ll tell you I can’t cook,” said Sonia. “But what I have always been good at is paying attention to detail and building things.”
Having worked various jobs across industries, Sonia found her calling when she found out about Black Hawk College’s Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP).
“I felt this program was an opportunity of a lifetime for me,” explained Sonia. “All of a sudden it clicked. I knew I would be able to pair my attention to detail skills with my love of building things.”
The Illinois Department of Transportation created the HCCTP to increase the number of minorities, women and disadvantaged persons working on IDOT projects. According to the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC), women make up just 9.9% of the construction industry in the United States.
“Women think we can’t get jobs in this field, and I’m here to tell you we can. No matter if you want to be an electrician, carpenter or plumber, females can do these jobs and opportunities are available,” said Sonia.
During HCCTP’s full-time, 13-week course, Sonia learned about:
- Construction Math
- Job/Life Skills
- Construction Blueprint Reading
- 10-hour OSHA
- Fork Truck Safety/ Scissor Lift/Aerial Lift
- IA/IL Flagger
- Stick Welding
- Construction equipment operation
- Hands-on projects within the community
- Field trips to the Trades
The end result of HCCTP is to prepare folks to work in the field of construction and to create a strong pipeline of applicants who will be accepted as an Apprentice in a DOL-approved Building Trade. HCCTP representatives work closely with the Building Trades in the Quad Cities and have a great relationship. The program relies on input from the Building Trades and the Contractors to ensure that what is being taught is what is needed. There is a closed Facebook page for all graduates, who frequently post information regarding applications, job openings, etc. Most graduates post updates on their work status, Journeyman completion and to send positive messages to other graduates.
After graduating from the program in November 2015, Sonia knew she wanted to find work as a heavy highway carpenter. However, given the time of year, it was a struggle to find a job. To keep herself busy and from being too discouraged, Sonia began painting. One day, Sonia received a call from a GC located in Wisconsin notifying her of their interest to add a woman to their team. Three days later, Sonia was on a jobsite and has never looked back.
Julie Gelaude, HCCTP Director and a NAWIC Quad Cities Chapter member, said, “Sonia is exactly the kind of person this program was built for. She was offered the opportunity, she listened, she learned, and she applied herself. She didn’t give up when something was hard, she pushed through. The opportunity is one side of the coin. The other side is grit, attitude and perseverance. Sonia had that in her when she started and HCCTP made it come alive in all aspects of her life, her focus, her drive and her pride. Her work speaks for itself. You can’t help but cheer her on! She has been and will continue to be surrounded by a strong support system. The Building Trades and contractors have been instrumental in the success of HCCTP. They take our graduates and are changing lives like Sonia’s and providing them with a career.”
Paul Fessler, HCCTP Program Manager, added, “Sonia makes a point of visiting HCCTP classes to tell her story. Her message is that you can do it, too. She truly inspires others!”
Excelling in the Field
One of the best tips Sonia received was to find a colleague she wanted to learn from and “follow them” around to absorb any information she could. As a result, Sonia has picked up tips and tricks from foremen that enable her to be better and faster at her job.
Sonia explained that her experience working in a male-dominated field has been one where “the guys respect you as a woman and don’t want you to get hurt. Though as a woman working in construction, you have to do the work to earn the respect.”
It’s no surprise to her colleagues that Sonia can carry a 16-foot 4’x4’ herself. She’s not only demonstrated feats of physical strength, she’s highly intelligent and genuinely cares for her colleagues. Regardless of any challenges taking place on the jobsite, Sonia said, “We all have to go home in one piece, and safety is always my first concern.”
Sonia’s stand-up character and hard work ethic are being recognized off the jobsite too. She just received the John Hass Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to a graduate of the HCCTP currently enrolled in an apprenticeship program to purchase needed tools. Sonia received $500 worth of tools she needs on the jobsite.
Today, Sonia is a member of Carpenter Local Union 4 and will receive her Journeyman card in May 2020. Because she went straight into heavy highway, Sonia receives full Union benefits. “I never thought in my entire life I would have a retirement account, let alone that’s already up to six figures.” Sonia also shared that with her total benefits package, she will make up to $80 per/hour.
“They pay me to get dirty, they pay me to have fun. How can it get any better than that?”
For more information about the Highway Construction Careers Training Program, visit www.bhc.edu/hcctp.
To learn about career opportunities at McCarthy-Bush, click here.