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'I Had a Part in That'

March 05, 2019
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DETROIT – It’s mid-February and work on the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center is entering the home stretch. Outside, snow is falling, at times sideways in a biting wind, and temperatures are in the 20s.

On the inside, against the din of large blower heaters, excavating equipment moving dirt, whirling saws and scissor lifts hoisting workers upward, the construction crew is undeterred. With the opening projected for late summer, the site is humming with activity.

No matter where you turn, there’s a worker with a hard hat, each with a specific skill doing what they do best. Look closer and blending into this sea of hard hats are Rahshell Carey, Tami Ducker, Melissa Leonard and Kim Pigeon.

Each backed by journeyman skill level and decades of experience as seasoned veterans in the construction industry, these women bring their own individual spirit to the job site, no matter big or small. Car plants, hospitals, schools, nuclear power plants. They’ve been there, done that.

“I love it, I love it,” says Carey, a laborer and Detroit resident who works closely with the general contractor. “Been doing it for 32 years.”

Ducker, an insulator for 23 years and Monroe resident, recalled working on an expansion at Henry Ford Hospital in the 1990s. That time would have coincided with the building of the Henry Ford II Pavilion, on the west side of the hospital campus.“There’s nothing I don’t like working in the trades,” she says. “I love going to jobs after they’re completed and going, ‘I had a part in that.’”

These women are among an estimated 939,000 women working in the construction industry, according to the National Association of Women in Construction, citing Dec. 31, 2016 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the male-dominated industry, that equates to about 9.1 percent.

While the women recognize that imbalance, they talk of uplifting their sisterhood in the trades, earning the respect of their male brethren and letting their work stand on its own. Leonard and Pigeon are steamfitters each with more than 20 years of experience.

“It’s nice to see the four of us out here,” says Leonard, a Madison Heights resident. “It’s unusual that all of us are on this job. We don’t have any apprenticeship girls on this job and we’d like to see that.”

Pigeon, who lives in Gregory, near Fowlerville, says the industry has evolved since her early days. “Over the years it’s gotten a lot better because there’s more women getting involved,” she says. “It’s more acceptable now than it was 20 years ago. You had a lot of people that didn’t want to work with you, didn’t want to teach you anything.”

On any given day, there are as many as 140 trades working at the 175,000-square-foot site, which includes the Pistons’ practice facility and corporate headquarters, a modern and comprehensive sports medicine, treatment and rehab complex to be managed by Henry Ford Health System and a parking structure. The work day begins at 6 a.m. ends at 2 p.m.

How the women broke into the ranks is as diverse as they are. Pigeon saw construction as a potential career opportunity after learning the industry was seeking women and minorities. Leonard is a second-generation steamfitter, following in the footsteps of her dad and brother. In a bit of sibling rivalry, Ducker accepted the challenge of her brother, who questioned whether she could make it in the trades. “I had to prove him wrong,” she says. Carey credits her late uncle Jeff with exposing her to the industry.

“He was a laborer. He used to be a foreman,” she recalls. “I seen what he was doing, and I was like, I want to do that. He said, ‘No, you don’t want to do this.’ I said, yes, I do. He said ‘OK, I’ll get you in.’” Years later, two of Carey’s children – a son and a daughter – have become laborers.

Beyond the passion for their work, the women appreciate the multiplicity that construction offers, making each job site different from the next. “I like that I’m not on the same site every day,” Pigeon says. “I may be needed for six months, then I move on to the next site. New people. Not doing the same thing every day.”

Leonard has been on jobs in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. “You don’t get stale.” A self-proclaimed “proud steamfitter” Leonard gives her best sales pitch for the trades: “Instead of owing 70 grand for a college education, you can go to school for five years, get paid for it, and have a trade you never forget.”

And if you’re lucky, you just might meet your future spouse as Ducker did. She and her husband Robert married 11 years ago after meeting on a job site.“We’re like inseparable,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “People ask, ‘how can you do that?’ How can you not. We’re like two peas in a pod.”

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MEDIA CONTACT: David Olejarz / David.Olejarz@hfhs.org / 313.874.4094