Dynamic work and the chance to be your own boss lead women into the trades
MJ Reed, a longtime electrician and the owner of MJR Electric, never expected to have a career in the trades.
She learned electrical work as an unofficial apprentice for her father at his electrical company while she was in high school and college, “but I didn’t really see myself pursuing it,” she says. It wasn’t until she wanted to volunteer as an electrician for Habitat for Humanity while studying sociology at the University of Southern Maine that she decided to get her license. After graduating and working as an independent electrician for a year, “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I just supported myself completely at 23 years old.’” From there, she was hooked. “Self-employment is the biggest drive behind what I do, and I love the freedom, flexibility and pride that I get out of being self-employed,” she says.
While Reed, 40, was drawn to being her own boss, Jennifer Somma, a mechanic-turned-carpenter for Hardypond Construction, has spent her trade career following her passions as they grow and change. “I went to the vocational school here in Portland (Portland Arts & Technology High School) for automotive technology, and I graduated at the top of my class,” says Somma, 29. “I got a scholarship to go to Central Maine Community College and I graduated there in 2009 with an associate’s in auto technology and applied sciences.” She worked as a mechanic in garages for seven years until she decided to change paths and give flooring a try. “I worked there for two years, and I realized I liked construction—the whole project of it—and working [in flooring] is what really made me want to come [to Hardypond] and try building construction.” She began as a laborer and carpenter, but as of late, she has taken on a new role as field supervisor.
Both women have found joy in the ever-changing nature of their jobs, whether it be mastering systems or finding solutions to unique problems. “There’s always something new to learn,” says Somma. “That’s what I love about this field. You’re never not learning something. You could be in this business for 40 years, and you’re still going to learn something. You can’t really get bored.” Lately, she’s been learning how to read blueprints with the help of her Hardypond co-worker Dave Garand. “I want to know more. I’d like to know as much as I can.”
Reed shares this enthusiasm for the daily mental exercise of the job. “It fits my personality. It’s very dynamic,” she says. “The beginning of any project is like ‘Oh, yay! A new toy!’” However, she recognizes that constant change may not appeal to everyone. “There are opportunities for tons of different personalities in [this field],” she says. “There are larger companies where they’re on a job for a year or six months, so you are going to the same place every day working, relatively, with the same people,” she says.
Whether someone chooses to work on long-term projects or seeks out new environments like Reed and Somma, there is a uniform feeling of accomplishment and pride when a project is finished. “We’ve done a lot of renovations, and it’s just a nightmare,” says Somma. “You go through hell tearing it apart. You literally put your blood, sweat and tears into it. It’s your work and the subcontractors’ work, and the end result is powerful.”
Reed finds additional fulfillment from her time spent volunteering for the Greater Portland affiliate Habitat for Humanity, the place where her career began. “It makes me feel like I’m doing it for more than just money. It’s a skill that I’m lucky to have,” says Reed. “I studied sociology in college, so I’m interested in the human condition, and this is a way to feel like I’m contributing to the world while still making a living.” Reed also uses these job sites as safe places to train new employees or introduce someone to electrical work for the first time.
When asked why young people, particularly girls, are hesitant to seek a career in the trades, Somma suggests that it’s rooted in social media culture. “I feel like girls have a harder time because they have to get past the judgment of their peers, their friends, the guys in the program,” she says. She sees the availability of trade jobs as an opportunity for young women to secure careers in an industry that hasn’t always been welcoming to women. “There are so many places hiring that are willing to train, and they don’t care if you’re a girl or a guy. It’s easier now than when I was in school,” she says.
Reed believes this hesitation has a similar primary cause. “It just needs to be marketed differently,” she says. This misconception speaks to the troubling stigma surrounding vocational careers. “[The trades are] something people aren’t going into because they feel the pressure to have a more prestigious title or prestigious degree,” says Reed, “but [these careers] are still an opportunity to make a great living.” She, Somma and many others in the field are working to change this perception.
In their efforts to shed new light on the vocations, both women have been active in encouraging girls to explore different trade paths. Reed, who has been involved in Totally Trades!, a program that aims to inspire young girls to pursue careers in the trades, recommends that women just starting out learn as much as possible. “Find a way to get your hands dirty, whether it’s through volunteering, finding someone who needs an extra hand, getting a job as a carpenter’s helper—something that would recreate the environment that will get you used to what this world is all about,” she says.
Somma’s advice to young girls speaks to her own struggles with gender discrimination and is a lesson she learned only recently herself. “You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. The only person you need to prove that you can do it to is yourself,” she says. “And when you’ve done that, then you just grow immensely.”
Bailey O’Brien is a Portland-based freelance writer and editor. In her spare time, she can be found in tiny bookstores, on top of mountains or beside the ocean.