Within the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) and Joiners of America lies the Sisters in the Brotherhood (SIB), a union organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining and assisting women who are interested in the trades. According to David Gross, executive director, International Standards & Training Alliance (INSTALL), the first committee was formed in 1998 in Boston, Massachusetts. Since then, a total of 131 Sisters in the Brotherhood committees have been established throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

Here, he provides an update on how the unions have evolved over time and talks in depth on the support and resources the Sisters in the Brotherhood offers to women who are interested in the trades as a career option.  

The following are excerpts of our conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety below.


Floor Trends & Installation: What is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America? 

David Gross: We are a labor union that is made up of many signatory contractors, endorsed by many industry-leading manufacturers. But, it's really a group of crafts under one umbrella. We have everything from the INSTALL program, which is our floor covering craft, to underwater welders, to pile drivers, to carpenters, interior finish, dry wall, metal stud, heavy highway, bridge builders, concrete forms, interior and exterior carpenters, whatever falls under that umbrella. There's so many crafts and trades under the umbrella of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and that's really what gives us our diversity and our strength in the construction market. 


Floor Trends & Installation: How does this union organization differ from what most folks remember of unions past?  

Gross: We refer to the contractors that do business with us as our industry partners. That's the way we see the business relationship. Their success is our success. We need to make sure our members can go to work and earn a living and they work for our signatory contractor. So, the best way to keep our members employed is to keep our contractor base satisfied with the quality of employees we're supplying and help them win work, because the more successful they are, the more work opportunities we have. 


Floor Trends & Installation: Back in the day, how many women were actually in the unions compared to today? 

Gross: Not many at all. The first sister in the Carpenters Union was Margaret Elling in 1935, and I'm pretty sure she was one of a few, not one of many. 


Floor Trends & Installation: Underneath the UBC umbrella is the Sisters in the Brotherhood that supports women in the union. Tell us more about the women and how long that organization has been around. 

Gross: With the need for more skilled labor and better trained labor, and with the whole women's movement of, relatively recently, women in the workplace, we've embraced it and we've really capitalized on it. We started what's called our Sisters in the Brotherhood, and the first committee was formed in 1998 in Boston. 

In 2002, we had our first Sisters in the Brotherhood Conference at the International Training Center. Currently, we have 131 Sisters in the Brotherhood Committees throughout the U.S. and Canada. That's alongside our International Sisters in the Brotherhood that represents the five major districts of our union—Canada, United States, and they offer a mentorship, leadership development, and they advocate for women's issues. They recruit and retain women and handle things that make it easier for women to get into the trades. 


Floor Trends & Installation: Are there specific programs?  

Gross: Under the Sisters in the Brotherhood, these committees, when they get together, have brainstorming sessions. They have breakout groups, this sort of thing. I don't know if they necessarily label them on a micro level, but it's all part of the Sisters in the Brotherhood program to set up situations where incoming sisters can speak with more experienced Sisters in the Brotherhood and help navigate not only the union and its infrastructure, but also just labor work in general, construction and trade type things. It's a nice place to go for them to find answers. It's a direction for somebody new to help navigate this trade. 


Floor Trends & Installation: What are some of the barriers for women entering the trades? 

Gross: First and foremost, for a lot it is inadequate childcare options due to long hours and early start times. Also, there's ill-fitting personal protective equipment, PPE, that now we're seeing the market respond, and they're starting to build equipment more favorable to women. 

Then, the general stereotypes, biases and discriminations in hiring and this sort of thing. Workplace harassment has been an issue ever since the beginning of time. However, I personally feel that that is starting to subside as a society. 


Floor Trends & Installation: How do your daughters feel about the trades? 

Gross: They help me build all the time. They both went to college, and they're engineers, so they have building in their background. They're never hesitant to jump in with me. We just remodeled my front porch and my older daughter was right there with me. It really blew my mind. I needed to snap a chalk line, and she grabbed the other end. And there is a technical method to snapping a chalk line to making it work, and she did it flawlessly, and I hadn't snapped a chalk line with her in many years. So, she retained that. That was all I needed to know. She passed the initiation test with me. 


Floor Trends & Installation: Of the Sisters in the Brotherhood who have completed the INSTALL training, what's been some of their feedback? 

Gross: They enjoy it, and they embrace it. Many of them excel in the more technical things, like the flash coving. They just gravitate to the more challenging installation. With the evolution of ergonomics and proper lifting, I don't even think flooring really has a strength advantage. 

As I got older in the field, I started using dollies, and whatever apparatus I could to make the job easier for me lifting-wise. So, you don't need brute strength. It's a trade that's open to anyone. Now, as I travel around the country in this job, I meet many of our training directors and coordinators who are women that did time in the field in Seattle, Washington. 

Paula Resa, she's the director of training for the Seattle Kent Training Center, and she did her time in the field. She raised her kids while she was working. In a lot of ways, I think women have it tougher than men to accomplish what they did and should be respected for that. They don't have it easy, and they overcome that. So, if there's anything you can talk to about strength or “stick to it-ness" or the ability to get the job done, women excel there. 


Floor Trends & Installation: What is the company doing to attract women into the trades? 

Gross: We have specific Sisters in the Brotherhood recruitment programs where we will do a pre-apprenticeship program for women. They can come in and get a chance to try on each of the different trades. They can try scaffolding, flooring, any sort of thing, and it's a women's-only class. They go over the basics and give you enough to understand what you're doing. Then, they allow you to make a choice from there—if it's for you or not. So it's a try it before you buy it kind of thing. 

Now, we do have pre-apprenticeship programs that they're welcome to come into as well that's open to everybody. But if they're a little bit hesitant and they want to just do it with a group that you identify with, we have that option. 


Floor Trends & Installation: Do you go into high schools? Where do you go to recruit? 

Gross: Yes, we have a program called Career Connections, which we align with a lot of high school programs, and whether they have a shop school or a technical school, we provide curriculum. We do talk to all the students but especially women, and let them know that this is a viable career option for them should they choose it. 

It's amazing how much flooring is not even identified as a trade in the general public, but that women aren't told sooner that this is a viable option for them, because you can make good money and do good work. In a lot of instances, having that childcare option is a barrier, but sometimes it's nice that with construction, it's a feast or famine type thing. So, you might go to work long hours for a short period, but then you have a nice break. If you have a system set up, be it husband, wife, family, parents, whatever, that can help you, it is a nice off-on kind of thing that can help. You actually spend more quality time with your children. 


Floor Trends & Installation: What sort of questions do you get asked about entering the trades from high school students? 

Gross: I get some typical questions like, what's the work like? Do I have to work at height? Some are averse to working in the air. That's where we say, well, you're probably a floor layer, then. Also, typical questions on travel, and some of them at that level kind of have a misinterpretation of what the trades are. They don't really understand what a commercial building is or what goes into building a commercial building. They think that a carpenter is just simply somebody that works with wood and builds cabinets. 

But then, same thing with flooring. Most of the experience or exposure they've ever had was watching somebody put carpet in their house, where the commercial carpet market is so much more advanced than that. When you start showing them the patterns and the layouts and the beginning product versus the end product, it really motivates them to be interested in a flooring program. Nothing changes the complexion of a building like flooring does. 


Floor Trends & Installation: What is the process to get people into flooring as opposed to other trades? We're at this place where the trades have essentially been removed from schools. There are several who still have some trade programs, certainly no flooring though. So there's a lack of knowledge overall by the students on what the trades are.  

Gross: That’s one of the biggest challenges of flooring. I'm a big advocate of getting the word out sooner to these kids and exposing them to the flooring trade, because now we have a bit of a shortage of trade workers in general. 

Now to get the flooring, that means they chose not to be a carpenter, plumber or an electrician. They have to filter all the way through to becoming a floor layer, which isn't as high profile as anything else. So, you're fighting over a finite number of tradespeople to try to get them, not only into the trades, but then into flooring, and that could be quite a challenge. 

You have to expose them to exactly what flooring is and give them a better understanding. Then, there's benefits to flooring. You're typically in a conditioned environment, you're not out in the blazing sun. You're not out in the freezing cold. You don't lose time to rain. You typically move around from job to job a lot. To some people, that's a detriment. To some people, that's a bonus. Some people don't like to be in the same spot all the time. 

A nice flooring job in a commercial market, two weeks you're there, and then you're on to something else. So, it's constantly in motion. Certainly, with INSTALL, the workers that you're with are changed out a lot because you're moving between contractors and crews. So, it's not the same hum drum of working with the same three or four people every day.

So, there's some real perks to working with flooring. 


Floor Trends & Installation: If people are interested in INSTALL or Sisters in the Brotherhood, what do they need to know? 

Gross: We have a pretty extensive website that really describes the INSTALL program: installfloors.org. The Sisters in the Brotherhood program, we have an executive director of that program, Sandra Rodriguez. She could be reached at sandra.rodriguez@carpenters.org, and she can direct whoever is interested into the local area where they can get more information or get involved with the Sisters in the Brotherhood. 

The program keeps evolving all the time because they communicate so well with each other. They keep identifying ways to make it better and more integrated. The whole program is really just wonderful.

Listen to the full interview!

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