March 6-11 was Women in Construction Week – an annual celebration of women in the industry and, for SMART, the sisters who strengthen our union. With two profile videos, a photo contest, a kids art contest and a happy hour at the end of the week, SMART spent Women in Construction Week 2023 highlighting the achievements of women in the unionized sheet metal industry and showcasing the life-changing careers available to women across the United States and Canada.

“Women in Construction Week is a great opportunity to get more women members connected each year and more involved with their union,” SMART Women’s Committee Chair Vanessa Carman (Local 66) told SMART News. “It was great to see new sisters and allies attend and show their support.”

Watch Carman, Bus and Sebro discuss Women in Construction Week.

SMART News interviewed sisters Korri Bus of Local 16 (Portland, Ore.) and Tatjana Sebro of Local 206 (San Diego, Calif.) about their personal experiences with Women in Construction Week and the union. For Bus, Women in Construction Week plays an important role in showing tradeswomen that even if they’re the only woman on the jobsite, they’re never alone.

“It highlights all the other women who have blazed the trail for us,” she said. “Growing up in the trades, when I was a baby apprentice, I didn’t have other women that I worked around, so I didn’t really get to connect with any of them, learn from them, be mentored by any of them, understand any of the struggles that they were also dealing with. So I think it’s really neat that we all get to come together and be celebrated … knowing that there are other women in our trade kicking butt and taking names.”

Two such trailblazing women, Shamaiah Turner of Local 17 (Boston) and Leah Rambo of Local 28 (New York City), earned the spotlight for new career advancements. Turner recently transitioned from the field into union representation, becoming a business development representative for the SMART Northeast Regional Council. And in March, Rambo retired from Local 28 to become deputy director of the executive team of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. Both women provide a strong example for the union sheet metal workers of the future.

Providing opportunity for women in construction

For unions like SMART, part of the aim of Women in Construction Week is to promote the value of entering the union building trades. Numerous studies demonstrate that unionized women earn better pay and benefits than their nonunion counterparts. For that reason, it’s important to increase awareness of the unionized sheet metal trade and how women can get involved. Sebro emphasized that Women in Construction Week helps expand knowledge of the role women play in our union and our trade, as well as the obstacles many face in their journey.

“Sometimes people don’t really understand some of the struggles and the barriers that we go through as women in the trades, so to be able to have a whole week highlighted is definitely liberating for me,” she said.

The SMART sisters of Local 206 participated in a photoshoot with fellow trades sisters, sponsored by the IBEW Local 569 and hosted at the Ironworkers Local 229 union hall. For Sebro, that represented the type of sisterhood and solidarity that has helped her throughout her career – and that, as a new journeyperson, she hopes to pass on to the next generation.

“I want to continue to move mountains and to just keep rising and to bring people with me,” she declared.

Local 17 (Eastern Mass.) fifth-year apprentice Kerry Sampson “had no idea what sheet metal even was” when a friend suggested that she consider entering the trade. Sampson, who previously worked as a hairdresser and makeup artist, had taken an interest in welding as she looked to work in a more consistent and better-paying field.

“Then he explained that I didn’t need to have any experience whatsoever, that I would go through a five-year apprenticeship program – for free – while working and making money, and I decided to give it a shot,” Sampson recalled in a Woman In Construction Week profile video. Now, she added, she’s the first-ever female SMART sheet metal worker in Rhode Island.

Women In Construction Week 2023 profile video on Local 17 member Kerry Sampson

“I’ve learned quite a bit,” she explained. “I’ve learned CAD, I’ve learned drafting, I’ve learned welding, I’ve learned fabricating ductwork, measuring, and right now I’m learning testing and balancing.”

Like fellow Local 17 sister Adrian Mobley, the SMART video team accompanied Sampson through a day in her life as a sheet metal apprentice, as she explained her schedule, discussed her journey in the trade and more. Sampson is currently working on a job at Providence College, cutting the exhaust into the bathrooms and the dorm rooms of a new residence hall.

“Depending on the job, I’ll be doing different things,” she told SMART. “Some jobs have a lot of welding, and I might be the ground person or the fire watch. Other jobs I would be installing the ductwork in the air. Some of the jobs I’m just the helper. [Either way] the day really flies by because you’re constantly learning and working.”

Before entering the Local 17 apprenticeship, Sampson found a consistent, family-sustaining career hard to come by. Her hair dressing job, she said, didn’t pay very well but had some benefits; as a makeup artist, she made more money but had no benefits. Now, with the strong pay and benefits afforded by her union apprenticeship, she’s able to help her daughter go to nursing school, afford her own place and provide for her loved ones.

“I definitely have better work-life balance now that I’m in the union,” Sampson explained. “I make better money, I’m more comfortable, I have better benefits, I can do what I want to do with my free time. I love fishing; the first year of my apprenticeship I was able to buy a small aluminum boat, and now I own a 20-foot center console.”

Like Mobley’s profile, Sampson also discussed the mentorship she’s received at her local, her favorite parts of being a sheet metal worker, and the advice she would give a woman considering entering the trade. She also described her future plans – shadowing a testing and balancing worker for two years and getting her TAB license – and looked back on her Tradeswomen Build Nations 2022 experience.

“We marched around the [Las Vegas] strip chanting ‘wicked SMART, wicked SMART’” Sampson recalled near the conclusion of her video profile. “It was an invigorating, and empowering, and invincible feeling. It was a feeling of unity, support, togetherness and belonging.”

Local 17 (Boston) sheet metal worker Adrian Mobley took her time entering the trade. She originally attended college on a full-ride soccer scholarship; after leaving to take care of her father, she became a nursing assistant for nine years. But that all changed when she entered the Building Pathways pre-apprenticeship program and met Local 17’s Shamaiah Turner.

“She’s awesome. She is a great mentor,” Mobley explained during a Women In Construction Week 2023 video profile. “She came in and talked to my class, [and] just seeing her and how passionate she was – I was like, ‘you know what? I want to be like her. I can do that.’”

Women In Construction Week 2023 profile video on Local 17 member Adrian Mobley

The SMART video team followed Mobley through a typical workday, starting with her 5:40 a.m. commute and ending around 2:30 in the afternoon. She’s currently working on the South Station Terminal project in Boston, installing various pieces of duct. That project, she said, is indicative of what she enjoys about the trade.

“What I love about doing sheet metal is, honestly, driving past a building that I worked on and being proud, saying: Wow, I did that,” Mobley explained. “I love the welding aspect of it as well … putting the duct up, gunking, sealing, everything that comes with [sheet metal.] The camaraderie on the job … it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s different.”

She also pointed out the outsized impact that her union membership has made on her personal life. Mobley worked for several different agencies throughout her tenure as a nonunion nursing assistant, and she never had the financial security to move out of her parents’ house. Even worse, none of those companies provided her with health or dental benefits. That all changed, Mobley noted, when she joined Local 17.

“I got into the union, and I stacked: saved money, saved, saved, and now I have a two-bedroom condo and I’m loving it. So I thank the union for that,” she said.

Along with the benefits of her SMART membership and her favorite parts about sheet metal work, Mobley discussed her experience as an apprentice, Tradeswomen Build Nations 2018 and more. She concluded her profile with a word of advice to the SMART sheet metal sisters of tomorrow:

“If a woman approached me right now wanting to get into sheet metal, I would tell her go for it. If you see me doing it, you can do it. I saw another woman doing it, and I convinced myself I could do it.”