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Women in construction share their war stories

By Brian Johnson
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Polly Friendshuh became a union electrician in the 1980s because she wanted a well-paying job to support herself and her three young children. Beating the odds in a male-dominated industry, she found that and a lot more.

Polly Friendshuh

Polly Friendshuh

Friendshuh rose through the ranks of the trades and now teaches aspiring construction workers at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. When she started out, she was one of 11 women in a union of 2,000 members and she encountered a good deal of skepticism.

“At the time I got into the trade, I weighed 90 pounds. They were looking at me like, ‘Yeah, right,’” she said during last week’s National Association of Women in Construction 2018 Midwest Region Fall Conference in Bloomington, Minnesota.

As part of the event, Friendshuh joined four other women in a panel discussion about overcoming hurdles and finding success in the construction industry. Panelists included Joanne Hager, a masonry worker for John Foley Masonry; Kristin Schultes, president of Metropolitan Mechanical Contractors; Laura Karow, majority owner of Gunnar Electric, and Seaen Kosmides, vice president and partner of OlympiaTech Electric. Mary Benike Kisilewski, vice president of Benike Construction, moderated the discussion.

A recurring theme was that women oftentimes have to go the extra mile on a job site to earn the respect of their male peers.

“You have to work twice as hard as any of the guys on the crew just to prove you can do it,” said Karow, who received her journeyman electrician license in 2004 and became majority owner of Gunnar Electric in 2014.

Joanne Hager

Joanne Hager

Hager said she went into the industry after serving as her father’s caregiver for years. At age 47, she attended an orientation at Summit Academy in Minneapolis. An instructor encouraged her to pursue work in the trades.

Hager graduated from Summit during the recession in 2008. Though the job market was tight, she found work on the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium project and has been in the industry ever since.

She credits the U of M for putting pressure on the stadium construction team to hire more women to work on the job.

“Because there was a (inclusion) goal, I got a job,” said Hager, who is now an advocate for improving diversity and inclusion for women and people of color in construction.

Hager said she enjoys the physical nature of working in construction — and that she knows she put in a good day of work when there’s “no question I need a long shower” at the end of the day.

“As my husband says, ‘the dirtier you are when you get home, the happier you seem to be,’” Hager said.

Kosmides took a different path. After working for a time as a stock broker, she returned in 2000 to OlympiaTech, an electrical company founded by her father in the 1960s. One hurdle was to prove that she was not just “daddy’s little girl,” she said.

Laura Karow

Laura Karow

“I had to work very, very hard to prove to people that I was not just being handed a job,” said Kosmides, who founded a women’s chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association in the Twin Cities.

“I have always felt that women can do whatever they want to do, so I am trying to be that mentor to other women, younger women, and tell them about my trade,” Kosmides added.

Schultes joined Metropolitan Mechanical Contractors in 2008 as chief financial officer. One of her biggest obstacles was coming into the industry with a background in accounting, she said. Most of the people she worked with were trades people or engineers.

“It has taken me some time to be comfortable in my own skin,” she said.

Friendshuh has worn a number of different hardhats in her career: electrician, project manager and estimator. In her teaching role at Dunwoody, she’s trying to impress upon her students that there’s a place for both men and women in the industry.

“As a woman, I felt I needed to prove myself and also to pave the way for others to follow. I find as a teacher now I can do the same thing,” said Friendshuh, an associate professor in Dunwoody’s Construction Sciences and Building Technology program.

Friendshuh has been a pioneer in multiple respects. She told the panel that she was the first in her family to go into the trades. Her father disapproved at first, but eventually he came around to the idea that his daughter made a good career choice, she said.

“When my dad passed away, he left me all his tools,” she said.

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