Liz “Knuckles” Nichols the Cement Mason

Liz Nichols grew up in Massachusetts, and like so many teenagers, she received the clear message that her next step after high school was to go to college and get a degree.

Liz started college in 2002 and achieving that college degree was no easy feat. College itself was challenging for Liz. She told us, “I was just a mediocre student. I had ADD and a learning disability and getting through college was a struggle.”

But Liz persevered and in 2006, earned her bachelor’s degree in English.

The next steps were not so clear, but the next challenge was in front of her: finding living wage work, paying off college debt, and building her future.

Liz shared that she “had a bit of a crisis of confidence. I got the degree, but it was still a struggle to earn a living wage.” Liz added, “After going through college telling myself, ‘just get through this, and everything will be okay…’ it did a number on my self-esteem because I wasn’t okay – it was still a struggle to earn a living wage.”

Liz moved to Portland and found employment working gardening and landscaping jobs in the spring, summer, and fall, and working at coffee shops in the winter. Her situation was unfortunately common – Liz had her college degree, but was in debt, earning low wages, and receiving no health or retirement benefits at either job.

While working the landscaping jobs, Liz discovered she really enjoyed working outdoors and doing physical work, and it was during a conversation with a customer at the coffee shop in the winter of 2013, when Liz made the connection that she could have the best of both worlds with a career in the trades: living wages and a physical job, not behind a desk. “One day while chatting with an IBEW electrician, I learned about Oregon Tradeswomen’s pre-apprenticeship program. I applied immediately. Liz continued working as a barista until class started. It was meant to be, as Liz almost didn’t get into that class. She said, “I was on the waiting list and lucky for me, someone dropped out!”

Liz loved Oregon Tradeswomen’s pre-apprenticeship class. “I knew immediately I wanted to go the union route.” Liz was drawn to the debt-free career training, the pay, healthcare, retirement benefits, and stability.

Liz said she started TACC with a bit of ’imposter syndrome’, or “who am I to think I can go down this path?” But what she heard from Oregon Tradeswomen instructors throughout the class: “You’re here because you don’t have experience. You will get on the job training and that’s okay – that’s expected.”

Liz started a one-week class with the Cement Masons right after graduating from TACC. On Wednesday after class, Liz was asked to stay late, where she was offered entry into the apprenticeship program starting the following week! She called Oregon Tradeswomen immediately, very excited and slightly unsure. Liz LOVED the work, but wasn’t completely sure she should go for it so quickly? She trusted her instinct and joined Cement Masons Local 555 and is so happy she did.

“My Union has been wonderful.” Partway through her apprenticeship, her father-in-law was diagnosed with a terminal illness and Liz and her husband packed up their home in Portland within a week, were moving back to Massachusetts. “It was intense but being in a union saved me!” Liz had virtually no gap in her apprenticeship training – she picked up the next week after arriving in Boston. “There were fewer women on jobsites when I was working in Boston, but I was glad to be able to continue my apprenticeship training without missing a beat”. When she moved back to Portland, it was seamless again.

During much of her last year of apprenticeship, Liz was pregnant, and she worked up to 3 weeks before her due date working concrete! Four months later, Liz was ready to take her journeyman exam. On the scheduled day, she couldn’t secure childcare and brought her young son with her and her instructor and Business Manager babysat while Liz took her journeyman exam! Liz reflected warmly on that day and said, “I felt very supported throughout my apprenticeship there.”

When we asked about any challenges Liz had along the way, Liz shared that most of her male coworkers have been supportive, “there were a few who tried to talk me out of the trade, encouraging me to go to an ‘easier trade’ – to go push a broom or become a flagger.”

Liz also shared that there are not yet any formal structures in place for parental leave – or nursing mothers. “I nursed for 20 months, but there were no facilities on the jobsite, so I was discreetly pumping and dumping breast-milk into a porta-potty. I was still able to nurse son though.”

Today, Liz is loving her work as a journeyman cement mason, and a recent competitor on the CBS television show Tough as Nails! Oregon Tradeswomen was contacted last year by the show’s producers, and we shared the information on social media. Liz told us, “I saw the post on Instagram and went to the website. I filled out the form and sent photos of myself on the job. A few weeks later, I was contacted to participate on the show in LA!”

Liz couldn’t share much about the show, as it was airing at the time of this interview, but she did share that one of the things she loved most was seeing the other undeniably amazing women. “It makes me so happy that the show offers such a physical representation of strong women – increasing visibility in places where there aren’t as many women doing physical work.”

Liz loves the work she does! She told us: “Concrete is like alchemy! It’s challenging work that’s different everyday and I love that you get a final product so immediately. Every time I leave the job site there is something new there that will probably outlast me.”

 

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