Trans in the trades
August 18, 2017 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm seriously considering changing careers and moving from public librarianship to an apprenticeship in my local carpentry union. I'm also trans. Is this a terrible idea?

I'm in Michigan, 33, finally debt-free and sick of office life. I like working with my hands, I'm fairly strong, I like creative problem solving and teamwork and having a tangible output for my efforts at the end of the day. Reading about showbiz_liz's career shift here planted a seed in my brain and I haven't been able to squash it. I've been slowly putting together an exit strategy at work, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, and talking to the local carpentry union about what I might expect during my apprenticeship. I think I'm going to do it.

But! I'm trans, like it says on the tin. Non-binary, female-assigned, and a smallish person in general. I'm out at work, and I am far enough into a medical transition that I'm read by strangers as a very young man about 50% of the time. I also have a kid who calls me "mom," and I'm not planning on moving out of the community where I live, where I'm pretty visible as an out trans and queer person. Going stealth is neither possible nor desired. I work with the public, so I'm very well accustomed to being constantly misgendered and questioned about my identity in polite and less-polite ways. But I'm under the impression that construction is a very different world with a culture I might find more hostile.

I'm having a difficult time finding even anecdotal reports of what I might be walking into. Help?
posted by libraritarian to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think rural vs. urban matters, as does the type of construction.

I haven't worked construction since I worked with my dad around 20 years ago, but the house framers were a rather different type than finish carpenters, and new construction projects have different crews than reno/remodel type jobs.

I'd say if you try this at all, try to apprentice with a smaller outfit (maybe just 1-2 man operation) that does finish work.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:49 AM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Redirecting elsewhere is always a weak answer, but in case you haven't thought of these places yet: There used to be a couple people in various trades hanging around the old LJ FTM community and there will be some posts there. Otherwise, I would ask in r/ftm (which is where the transmasculine hivemind moved). I would have sworn I knew a trans carpenter, but I'm blanking on who it is (if I'm not imagining this person!), which is not very useful to you.
posted by hoyland at 12:19 PM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

This depends a lot on exactly where you live and what you do. I am in a pretty liberal semi-rural place in New England and I know a lot of people in trades. Women in the trades are still getting a lot of shit, and I hear racist jokes, chain-smoking on the job site, and all that stuff. I know a nonbinary AMAB person who is having a pretty rough time in construction - microaggressions day in and day out. But on the flip side, I know of foremen who have a zero-tolerance policy for bigotry and tons of women here work in and own landscape companies and employ all sorts and seem quite happy. And I know one woman who owns a construction and demolition company and makes good money (she sells it on the fact that it's a woman-owned company and there's a market for that). I don't know any finish carpenters personally but there are people who work in restoration and then there are people who work in demolition and construction and those cultures are very, very different both between the different jobs and between the different companies.

So I think this is one of those things you can't ask random people on the internet. What do people in your local area think? What's the culture like where you are? I would pay especial attention to what ciswomen and POC say about their workplaces -- in my experience, the cis white men I know in trades don't always pick up on the cultural subtleties.

But I think you should do it, and make yourself a niche. We change culture by showing people we exist, right?
posted by epanalepsis at 12:44 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

What do people in your local area think? What's the culture like where you are?

To clarify, I'm in Lansing. It's a small rust belt city, but it is a city and it skews left. Some of that might be due to the fact that I've been able to self-select a queer/trans/PoC social circle, but even at work with the general public I don't get much in the way of outright harassment.
posted by libraritarian at 12:49 PM on August 18, 2017

I started a carpentry apprenticeship four years ago at 29, and although I've been a field engineer for the last two years, I am still in the carpenters' union and due to journey out soon. In my locality, there is currently a 1-2 year waitlist to start the apprenticeship, and almost everyone who gets to enroll has been through a six-month (unpaid) pre-apprenticeship program. It's a well-paid job with free training and decent benefits, a great career track for those ambitious enough to pursue a field management career, and relatively low barriers to entry, so it's in super high demand right now. There are still very, very few women in the trades however, and that might get you fast-tracked if you can get the right people to pull strings for you if you can play that card. Start calling your local apprenticeship coordinators now to find out more what the situation is like--you might have to make interim plans if that's the case where you are.

As far as the work goes, I've only ever been judged based on my ability and haven't experienced overt discrimination (with the exception of the fact that I have to work twice as hard as everyone else and be twice as smart as the men around me--it's not a coincidence that both of the female carpenters at my large company have bachelor's degrees among hundreds of men for whom that was not a hiring requirement).
posted by halogen at 1:20 PM on August 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

"And I know one woman who owns a construction and demolition company and makes good money (she sells it on the fact that it's a woman-owned company and there's a market for that)."

Same here in my city and if I were in libraritarian's shoes I would start by looking for the same thing in Lansing.
posted by komara at 2:40 PM on August 18, 2017

I'm a cis-white-dude in the ironworkers union in Canada, but generally in a union there is still a bit of the idea siblinghood and while women are severely under-represented in our trade, the few times I've been lucky enough to work on a crew with someone non-male they were treated like the rest of us. In the best crews the people that work hard are treated well and the lazier folks get layoffs as soon as there are layoffs.

I work in industrial maintenance though, like cement plants and steel mills, so it seems to attract a more "rough and tough" kind of worker than some other facets of ironwork.

Unfortunately many people that I've worked with on the job use a lot of bigoted/racist/sexist language and aren't shy about sharing their backwards views on gender, sexual orientation, race, politics, religion, etc. I imagine a lot of guys would be straight-up impolite in their questioning about your gender and orientation. Some people I work with though don't seem to care too much about anyone's business, especially if everyone is just working. It seems that anyone that works hard is eventually thought of a "part of the gang" after a while. My foreman says that for some jobs he would prefer to hire women workers since he thinks they tend to be better at detailed work and following instruction, and they break way less tools.

A lot of apprentices in my trade show up drunk or hungover and otherwise hardly able to work... the comment upthread about women having to work twice-as-hard rings true from what I have seen. Hard-working women (or POC) are sometimes laid off while the often-hungover "cool" kid is kept on because he's a white dude. There's also a lot of nepotism in the unions around here when it comes to hiring for big jobs. That can be another drag starting off in a trade if you don't have any family connections, it took me a while to find a niche with a decent company.

I have seen some women carpenters on some jobs, usually building scaffolding since in the plants it sometimes requires fitting into really cramped spaces. I don't know how the Carpenter's union works in the US, but in Canada I don't think they are allowed to solicit their own work, meaning a company has to name-hire you or you have to be dispatched out of the hall... I would ask about how the hiring works with your local hall as well.
posted by glip at 12:10 PM on August 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everyone. I took hoyland's advice and asked r/ftm which gave me a lot of similar (and largely reassuring) advice, including the following:

As much as a big dude has his place on the job, you will find yours. Now down to people and their opinions, everyone has them and at 33 I would assume you've been around the block with how to deal with them. There is no correct body type to do any job, so bust ass and I hope everything works out well for you! Best of luck.
posted by libraritarian at 10:32 AM on August 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went from a statistics BA and a white-collar job to a union plumbing apprenticeship. I'm four years in right now. I can't speak from personal experience about being trans in the trades, but I can speak about being a woman and about the attitudes I encounter around gender/sexuality/race/etc and how they do and don't influence my experience at work. Memail me if you'd like to chat about it.

Seconding that your cultural experience in construction really does depend on your geographic area, trade, and particular coworkers to some degree.

Also seconding that all body types are useful and have their niche in the trades -- in the pipe trades they joke that the tiniest person and the guy who's 7' tall will get laid off last, because the tiny person can crawl into the tightest spaces to do "skinny work", and the company doesn't have to buy the tall guy a ladder.
posted by cnidaria at 8:20 PM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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