By Devin Browne
Two years into what Courtney Newberg thought would be her dream job—snowboard camp director on Mt. Hood—she decided it was too much stress for too little pay. So at age 27, she decided to pursue a new dream job: ironworker. At Iron Workers Local 29 in Portland, journeymen make $40.56 an hour, plus $30.05 in benefits. To Newberg the work seemed gritty, and glamorous.
“And also traditionally masculine,” she says. “Which I’m not! But I wanted to prove that I can go in with these big guys, and be like, ‘Yeah, I can do this work too.’”
Aside from a few basics she learned in an Oregon Tradeswomen pre-apprenticeship program, Newberg had no real skills when she entered the union apprenticeship program. But she did have a strong work ethic. When she showed up at the Portland International Airport for her first big job as an apprentice ironworker, no one could figure out what to do with her. She started to pick up trash.
“Every day, for that first week, I was just trying to pick up trash better than anybody’s ever picked up trash before,” she says. “Because I think they’ll teach me something if I do.”
Eventually, the foreman took her under his wing. Nine months later, when the job ended, she could throw decking, use a hot saw, and stand on a deck fastener like a pogo stick. Her skills had progressed, but another shortcoming was revealed.
“All I ever heard on that job was that they liked having me around, I worked hard, but I just wasn’t very strong,” she says.
Newberg was always athletic—she plays softball and ice hockey, and in winter snowboards every weekend—but her strength was never what she’d have called “functional.”
Newberg knew muscle was something she could build. She started lifting more weights at her gym, and continued lifting heavy things on the job. Three years into her apprenticeship, she never hears that she’s not strong enough anymore.
But a more unwelcome kind of feedback from co-workers has persisted: “I’ve gotten a lot of comments about my butt,” she says. “Which is inappropriate.”
Talking about it, she laughs uneasily, just like she does when it happens on the job, before she tries to change the conversation. It’s one of the tactics the instructors at Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. talked about for handling uncomfortable situations: You can make a joke about it, you can confront it, you can walk away, and/or you can find someone you trust to talk to about it.
Newberg does all that, and afterhours she vents to fellow tradeswomen in a 940-member private Facebook group called “union Ironworker women only.” She also wears looser jeans.
Newberg said some men she works with seem instantly in love with every woman who walks by on the job site—which means she has to hear about every woman they see. “Oh yeah, that one’s great,” someone will say. It’s taken time and confidence for Newberg to say back, “I don’t know, she seems really young. And you seem 50.” Another joke to defuse another uncomfortable moment. Newberg just wants to do her job and not be checked out. “And I want that for all the other women too,” she says.
Newberg sees laughs and jokes as a temporary survival strategy. Long term, she says, “there have to be more of us women who go through this, and end up in positions of power and challenge things like that.”
That’s exactly what elected leaders in her union see for her. Shane Nehls, vice president of Iron Workers Local 29, was so impressed with Newberg that he nominated her for Oregon Tradeswomen’s “Woman on the Rise” award last year. She ended up winning. It’s an award given to tradeswomen in the construction industry who are “rising leaders.” Nehls says he nominated Newberg because she was exceptionally prepared in the apprentice interview, and then “went out there and kicked ass” on the job. Pretty much every time Nehls needs volunteers to phone bank or help in some way, she’s there. Nehls also noticed Newberg always has her tool belt on, even if it’s 100 degrees or pouring down rain. To him that’s big.
“She’s a woman making a difference out there,” Nehls says. “She’s changing people’s minds about women in the trade.”
She’s even changing women’s minds about women in the trade. When journeyman ironworker Olivia Shafer started as an apprentice nearly 12 years ago, she says she thought she had to “joke like the men, and be like the men, to be successful.” What impresses Shafer is that Newberg doesn’t think that.
“She doesn’t change herself to conform to what the men in the trades think women are supposed to be,” Shafer says. “I tell her all the time, ‘I can’t wait until you’re my boss.’”
There are also positives to being one of the few women in her local, Newberg says. [Currently, 42 of Local 29’s 1,579 members are women.] She likes being different. She likes being able to push back and get under the guys’ skin. And she likes being able to challenge their expectations.
Ever since she started as an apprentice, Newberg heard how hard it is to work in the dreaded “rod patch.” That’s a term for the grid-like structure that reinforcing ironworkers create out of rebar before concrete is poured. Working in the rod patch can mean carrying 80 to 100 pounds of rebar on your shoulder, dropping bars every 6 to 12 inches, and then bending over for hours while tying it together—fast—with pliers and wire. So when Newberg got her first rebar job, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do it, that this is where they’d call her bluff. But she showed up with the same work ethic as always, picked up skills quickly, and in the end, felt just as much a part of this crew as she had on any other.
“All this time, I’d been really in fear that this is where I was going to fail, that I wasn’t going to be able to do this,” she says. “And then I came in and I did a good job—in an area where a lot of the guys do [fail].”
Newberg may have been surprised, but almost no one who knows her was.
“She’s blossoming in this trade,” Shafer says.
“I see her running work one day,” Nehls says.
Humble by nature, Newberg is just focused on learning every aspect of the trade.
“When I got in, I wanted the glory,” she says. “I wanted the big iron and I wanted to be on top of all the buildings.”
Now that she’s been doing it, she finds that she likes detail work best. She’s currently on a handrail crew at Intel. There’s a lot of math, and it’s precision work. She has to figure out how to make it come together nice and straight. She’s realizing she really likes the puzzle of it all.