This blog is made possible by funding from the Oregon Department of Transportation to tell the stories of the women and minority men who are working to build Oregon’s transportation systems.
It’d be impossible to talk about female leaders in the NW construction trades without mentioning Jodi Guetzloe Parker. As the second woman to ever lead a building trades council in the United States (she was elected executive secretary treasurer of the 25-craft Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council in 2012), Guetzloe Parker has become somewhat of a role model for women, even beyond state lines.
But though she’s now spent over two decades in the trades – initially as a Cement Mason, then a rank-and-file member, elected official, and staffer at the Laborers Union Local 320 — the mother of one, stepmother of three, and grandmother of four came to the trades for the same reason many do: she couldn’t afford not to.
The self-deprecating Guetzloe Parker says the catalyst was losing her wallet, and with it, a bonus she’d received from her minimum wage job with a clothing company many years ago. “My friend [a Cement Mason] said, if that small amount of money is so impactful in your life, you need to join our apprenticeship program,” Guetzloe Parker says.
She couldn’t argue. She’d been working since she was 15, when she slung hamburgers at a carhop at a drive-in café (unless you count sweeping the floor for lunch money at six years old in her neighbor’s garage) – and at times still depended on social services to raise her kid.
“Thank God for public assistance because that carried us through,” Guetzloe Parker remembers. The subsidies were put to good use. “I’m a good investment! I’ve paid a lot of taxes and donate a lot of money. Social programs are so necessary, and have a good return.”
Guetzloe Parker grew up in Kamiah, Idaho, having her daughter when she was 20 years old and moving to Vancouver, Washington when she was 21. There she started cleaning hotel rooms, worked at Hi-School Pharmacy, a baby clothes company, and finally became a member of the Cement Masons at 32 years old.
Something clicked. “I was able to be outside, go to work, get dirty, and not worry about if my shirt was pressed for my $8/hour job,” Guetzloe Parker tells us. Finally, the single mom was on track to being able to independently support her family.
Her rise involved a fair amount of self discipline. “One of the things that make me who I am is being sober for 25 years,” says the building trades leader. “I have to do things to maintain that sobriety, but it’s part of what makes me a better leader.”
Unfortunately, a back injury derailed her career for one “horrible” year – at one point she was told she’d never be able to lift anything over five pounds again. Against the expectations of some of her doctors she returned, becoming a secondary list traffic flagger, then traffic control supervisor for Stacy and Whitbeck. She moved through various jobs with the Laborers – punch list foreman, quality control inspector – before running for an auditor’s office at the union. From there, she was hired at a staff position, eventually leading to last year’s election as the head of the building trades council.
What’s it like to be a female leader in the trades? “It’s tough,” Guetzloe Parker says. “And I’ve always been tough on myself. But you have to always give 110 percent, and I listen. I think I’m pretty good at letting people talk – I want to listen to them.”
Because, as she’s quick to point out, no one succeeds entirely on their own. “Bill Bruce [Stacy and Witbeck’s Interstate Light Rail superintendent] was my mentor,” Guetzloe Parker says. “He took me from a flagger to traffic control supervisor and to punch list foreman. He believed in me when I did not believe in myself. He told me, “You grow, or you go.” She grew.
When it comes to advice for the next generation of women in the trades, Guetzloe Parker begins, “Take a deep breathe. Carry on. We have resources everywhere. Develop friendships with men and women. Lean into them. “
Which is not to say, go soft. “And never let somebody take your tools away,” Guetzloe Parker concludes, with a smile.
Back when Lisa Ostrom was growing up in Clark County, Washington, there were no opportunities for the young tomboy to play sports. But there was woodshop. Ostrom took four years of woodworking classes in high school. Small wonder that now she’s a foreman on Hoffman Construction’s Intel project in Beaverton.
Or at least, she was. And she will be again – but for the moment, the 53 year old is dealing with another challenge: ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed this year with stage three tumors after noticing some irregular stomach bloat, and has been plowing through rounds of chemotherapy while she waits to be deemed able to get back on the job.
“I get bored easy at home,” Ostrom tells us, once again outfitted in her hard hat and safety vest on the day that she is interviewed by Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.
It’s clear that Ostrom’s workmates miss her as much as she misses them. An endless parade of peers come up to give her hugs, ask her about her wellbeing – nothing too technical, just enough to show to even the casual observer that she’s an integral part of the Hoffman team.
But there was a time when a woman working on a building trades site was not that common of a sight. After working at a teen clothing store, doing inventory and purchasing for a bearings company, furniture store, and Custom Aluminum, Ostrom got a job flagging on the Delta Interchange. Her employer, Kiewit, liked her and suggested that she join the Laborers.
“I would have liked to join the Operators,” Ostrom remembers. “But that takes confidence – back then I didn’t have any.” After working with the Laborers for a spell, she joined the Carpenters, never looking back after working on the Bonneville Locks for nine months, and a number of bridges and water treatment plants shortly thereafter.
Back in those days, it was rare to see woman on the job. “I was known as ‘the girl’ for a while, because there wasn’t very many girls at that time,” Ostrom says. But she took it upon herself to find team equilibrium, studying the way her coworkers did their jobs – right down to what they wore. “I just tried to dress like they did,” says Ostrom. “Sweatshirt, Levi’s, I didn’t try to wear makeup.”
At 37 years old, she started working for Hoffman. There, she became a foreman, overseeing the work of others. At first, she tells us, she played it stern. “Some of the guys around here may remember me from back then,” she laughs. But after awhile, the job – and developments in her personal life – taught her that oftentimes success comes with softening up a little.
“You get the job done faster if you can all communicate,” Ostrom reflects. “You have to know when to diffuse certain situations.” She says the company places a premium on positive feedback and supervisors who can keep their cool in high pressure situations.
After our interview, she tells us she’s off to speak with her supervisor about coming back to her job in a way that will mesh with her ongoing chemo sessions.
She drums her neatly manicured nails on the table when we ask her what her advice is for women entering the trades – she’s worked at Oregon Tradeswoman, Inc.’s annual Women in Trades Career Fair for a number of years, so it’s a question that she’s used to answering.
“You gotta listen and learn,” she says. Make sure you really think hard about the profession you’re choosing. “As long as you’re willing to do that, the guys are willing to help you.”
Ostrom should know a thing or two about conquering difficult situations – the responsibility she’s entrusted with on the job serves as proof she’s mastered the skills of her trade. And the challenge of going into a field where women were once rarities can’t be as all consuming as Ostrom’s experiences with chemotherapy – but perhaps the rules have some similarities.
Says the sunny, tough tradeswoman: “The first time you feel like giving up, you feel so sore. But then you go in again, and you see everyone is going through the same thing.”
“I think the trades have made me more outgoing,” she reflects. “I think they can really bring out the best in you.”
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