By Don McIntosh
Liz Nichols is starting to get texts from people she knows: Was that you on TV? Trailers for Season 2 of the hit prime time reality show Tough As Nails have been airing on CBS. Nichols, an eight-year member of Portland-based Cement Masons Local 555, is one of the contestants.
“You are the toughest workers in America. That’s why you’re here,” says host Phil Keoghan in the trailer.
The new season premieres 8 p.m. Wednesday Feb. 10. Twelve contestants compete individually and as part of two teams of six, tackling realistic challenges on construction sites, farms and fishing boats. Each episode, someone gets eliminated from the final challenge, but nobody gets sent home, because everyone’s there until the end competing with their team and cheering on the finalists. The winner gets $200,000 and a brand-new Ford pickup.
Nichols, 37, heard about the show and saw it as an opportunity to have fun and represent her craft and local. After applying last July, she did well in several rounds of interviews, and spent four and a half weeks in Southern California filming, starting mid-October with a two-week quarantine in a hotel room.
Nichols isn’t allowed to say who won, but she has only positives to say about the experience.
“There was a lot of love between everyone,” Nichols said. “You had a bunch of very competitive people. But we always hugged it out at the end.”
Keoghan, the show host, was funny, genuine, and easy to talk to, Nichols said.
“This is a passion project of his. His grandfather was a tradesperson, and he just has a lot of respect for the industry. He wanted to showcase these jobs that people don’t know exist. These are essential jobs.”
“It’s great that people see you don’t necessarily have to get on that college track,” Nichols said. Nichols would know. After a childhood in Waltham, Massachusetts, she went to Hampshire College, and graduated in 2006 with an English degree, and about $30,000 in debt.
“I graduated with no idea how I was going to make a living,” Nichols said. She worked in landscaping, and loved it, but wages were low. After moving to Portland with her future husband in 2011, she found Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. and its program introducing women to careers in the skilled trades.
“They opened my eyes to labor unions. I ended up joining the Cement Masons and within a couple years I had paid all that debt off. I had health insurance. I own a house now. I just can’t preach enough.”
Nichols loves sports and heavy lifting and was drawn to the cement mason trade by the physicality of it. The local saw something in her too.
“The guys at the hall said, ‘We’ll put you to work Monday if you want to do this.’ I said, ‘Sign me up!’”
The next Monday she was out pouring station platforms for Stacy & Witbeck on the Milwaukie light rail project. The $17 an hour apprenticeship wage—55% of journeyman pay—was the most money she’d ever made. Within a month, health insurance kicked in, after she’d been eight years without health insurance.
Now she hopes to inspire others to join. On the set of Tough as Nails, she brought her Local 555 baseball hat, and wore it every chance she got.
“It was so fun,” Nichols said of the show. “It was really a once in a lifetime experience.”