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Bright Future

For Vicki O'Leary, it all started with a bet

By Patricia Guadalupe

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For Vicki O’Leary, it all started with a bet. Back in the 1980s, the now-General Organizer and Director of Diversity at the Ironworkers International union was at home hanging out at the dinner table with her ironworker dad when her older brother said, “You can’t do what me and Dad do.”  Vicki naturally disagreed.  That brother, her dad, and several other relatives were already ironworkers but none were women. 

“You know how older brothers can get! My brother bet me that I couldn’t do it and so basically it was game on,” she said. “I took the test, got a physical, and my whole reason to take the test was to prove to my brother that I would do better than he did. I really didn’t know what exactly an ironworker was. I got an orientation letter and I went to that, still not thinking I was going to do it, and then three months later they called me to go to work. My mom said, ‘Vicki, this is a place to get some independence and you should try it.’” 

It’s a decision O’Leary doesn’t regret one bit. At first, it was hard to find work boots that fit her small feet---after all, not too many women back then were in the trades. But it’s a great life, she affirms, and these days those work boots are still hard to find without ordering them. 

“I got in, I got my first paycheck and I thought, yep I can do this. It was more than what I was making at the law firm I was working at the time, and it was also nice to know that I was going to get a raise every six months. I enjoyed working outside and working with my hands. I bought my first house at 25. I’ve been able to live a good, middle-class life and I’ve had great benefits, good insurance.”

Ironworker union officials emphasize that they provide a good wage with top-notch benefits and what they call “a dignified retirement.” It’s such a good life, O’Leary adds, that it’s why she’s laser focused on getting more women and more people of color to join the union. 

First of all, according to O’Leary, it’s a “total myth” that women can’t do the job. “That it’s too dangerous, that it’s too hard, that women may not be strong enough, none of that is true.” She cites her own experience as an example that women can indeed be successful ironworkers. “I think it gives it an authentic voice.” 

O’Leary emphasizes that the union is heavily involved in pre-apprenticeship programs that serve as a first step for women---including a three-week bootcamp in California to introduce participants to the trade.  “It gives them a competitive advantage and that’s one of the best things that we’re doing.” 

Students get hands-on training while working with experienced female ironworkers, and then are able to join the union apprenticeship program. While the union sponsors three bootcamps a year, the pandemic has put a halt to them, but O’Leary says she hopes to start them back up next spring. Other programs, including Chicago Women in Trade, Oregon Tradeswomen, Tradeswomen Inc., and Building Pathways in Boston, serve as feeders to the union.

The union has been putting their money where their mouth is, notes O’Leary, offering a key benefit much more generous than many other sectors---maternity leave that can start as early as six months before giving birth and continues post-delivery. 

“Two percent of ironworkers are women. When I first started (in my current position) we were at one and an half percent, so we’re moving up,” O’Leary says. “We recruit and retain women and people of color to those good-paying, great benefits jobs with the ironworkers.” 

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that overall employment of ironworkers is expected to grow 13% over the next several years, more than most other construction-related occupations. Currently, there are some 11,000 Hispanic ironworkers across the country, comprising 20 percent of those in the trade.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects faster-than-average growth over the next few years in skilled labor jobs, with not enough workers to fill those jobs. The Bureau also says that while many Latino workers are already in construction and other blue-collar jobs, their share of those jobs is expected to go up. According to all the data, the future looks bright for those who pursue this path.

O’Leary is also involved in the newly formed U.S. Department of Labor’s Advisory Board on Apprenticeship, telling LATINO Magazine that the board expects to publish a report in about six months, with diversity and inclusion as a key part of it. “When I saw diversity and inclusion on there and how they’re trying to get the numbers up on that, it seemed to be right in my wheelhouse so I figured I should get on that board.”

O’Leary is proud of the union’s “Be That One Guy” program, an anti-harassment initiative she started after the beating death in 2017 of a female apprentice carpenter by a coworker (who had been harassing her for days) at a construction site in California. The program’s mission is to turn bystanders into “upstanders,” to be “that one guy” who can deflect and diffuse a situation. It includes a pledge: “I will be one who tells a co-worker, foreman, general foreman, etc. to knock it off. It only takes one to do the right thing.” That program was highlighted in a 2019 recognition O’Leary received called the Award of Excellence from the Engineering News-Record, for what they called her tireless work on behalf of greater respect and diversity. 

O’Leary felt optimistic after attending the union’s annual gathering in Las Vegas in August. “It was incredible to see all the diversity. We’re on the right path,” she said, adding that the union passed a resolution unanimously that pledges to “treat workers with respect and dignity regardless of age, color, national origin, citizenship status, physical and mental disability, race, religion, creed, gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and or expression.” 

“Not seeing any pushback,” O’Leary adds, “tells me that we’re heading in the right direction. I walked out of there completely stoked. It gives me a lot of hope for the future. We have to look like what the U.S. looks like, and the U.S. is a melting pot. That’s what we have to look like in order to continue to grow. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there. The future looks bright.”

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