OTI Alumnae Spotlight: Meet Vanessa Enos!

Vanessa Enos is both an accomplished artist and journey level tradeswoman! She grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in NE Oregon and went to high school there, and after graduation, attended Blue Mountain Community College on a basketball scholarship. After a year in community college, Vanessa decided to move to Philadelphia, PA to attend Moore College of Art and Design to focus on illustration. While she loved art school, Vanessa made the decision to leave after her first year but, continued to live and work in the city for another four years. This was an important time in Vanessa’s life where she was discovering her strengths and passions, and realizing she didn’t want to stay in the retail and service industry jobs that kept her in the stressful cycle of living paycheck to paycheck.

After being on her own for five years, Vanessa moved back to the reservation to work as a Head Start teacher while also serving as a Wildland Firefighter for four seasons during her summers. Vanessa was drawn to this work because it was a passion of a close family friend who passed away and she wanted first hand experience of the work he loved so much. She candidly recalls how hard the training was and how many people doubted that she would make it due to being a woman and her small stature. But, with her now legendary grit and determination, Vanessa passed the test and proved herself as a Wildland Firefighter.

After her fourth summer of Wildland Firefighting, Vanessa craved a change of focus in her life as she was slipping into a hard-partying lifestyle that no longer served her. She moved to Portland to attend treatment at NARA Rehabilitation Center and found under the table construction work that helped her get back on her feet. Years before her move to Portland, Vanessa had received a call from her friend Feather Sams-Huesties, who frequently did career outreach for women and was a professional contact of Connie Ashbrook, OTI Executive Director. Feather told Vanessa about OTI’s Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class (TACC) and about what a great fit she would be for the program. Vanessa remembered this conversation and reached back out to Feather once she was settled in Portland to learn more about OTI and how she could get started.

When she is asked by people “why the laborers union?” Vanessa confidently replies, “If you want to be great you’ve got to start at the bottom”.

With encouragement from Feather, Vanessa enrolled in OTI’s Spring 2014 TACC class when she was 32 years old and was accepted into a laborers apprenticeship program before she even finished the program. When she is asked by people “why the laborers union?” Vanessa confidently replies, “If you want to be great you’ve got to start at the bottom”. She loves her trade for the variety of skills she is able to learn and the fast paced atmosphere that has allowed her to become a “jill of all trades”.

Today, three years after finishing OTI’s TACC program, Vanessa is a Journeyman Laborer with a soft spot for concrete. She candidly explains, “not many females do it (concrete work), but I love it!” Currently she’s working as the Vibrator Hand for Howard S. Wright on the old Grove Hotel Building in China Town, making $28.77 an hour. She is getting to do exactly what she hoped to be doing, which is climbing the columns and pouring the walls of the structures she works on. But, she had to work hard to get to this place.

In her past job, Vanessa noticed she was being passed over for more skilled roles on the job site, leaving her stuck with mucking concrete even after journeying out. She asked her foreman why she wasn’t able to do what the new guys were doing and if it had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman. One of her coworkers chimed in, stating, “Vanessa, we’re all thinking it but we can’t say it. Yes, it’s because you’re a girl”. This is not something that Vanessa was willing to accept and she advocated for herself to ensure she was learning the skills she needed to be successful in her field. Unfortunately, Vanessa was slowly being transitioned to cleaning crews and pulled from more and more skilled tasks on the job site.

“No matter how hard you try to prove yourself in the trades, when you want to do something you typically get a million excuses why you can’t. It’s called pigeon holing; they never let you go to your full potential”.

This can be a common experience for women in the trades, but luckily not all companies function this way. Vanessa called up her old supervisor at Howard S. Wright and let him know she wasn’t happy in her current job and laid out the terms of what she would need to switch to a different company. He enthusiastically accepted and Vanessa felt really empowered to have left a job that wasn’t offering her the opportunities she was seeking and successfully advocate for a job that would build her skill set.

While Vanessa loves her career, she finds that sexual harassment on the job site is still extremely prevalent, “there’s all sorts of harassment out there, it’s just about you setting firm boundaries and nipping it in the bud”. She notes that dealing with issues of harassment in such a direct way can be hard for new apprentices, but at the end of the day, it’s important to let your coworkers know that “I’m not here for your entertainment or for your pleasure. I’m not here for eye candy”. Apprentices are there to work and learn skills so they can advance and earn a living just like all the other workers.

When you ask Vanessa about her goals for the future she excitedly answers, “the sky’s the limit!” She would like to work her way through the ranks to become a foreman, noting that her union has a lot of plans for her and the leadership she has the aptitude to grow into. She would also like to work as a recruiter to get more women into the trades; especially focusing on outreach to Native American women on reservations.

While Vanessa is a bad-ass tradeswoman by day, she is also a talented artist with a piece of work in the Smithsonian! She wants to further nourish her passion for art and to continue to leave her mark on the world as an artist through her favored mediums of print-making and oil painting, while also advancing her trades and career building skills. We agree that the sky is the limit for Vanessa and we are excited to see all that she is bound to accomplish. Check out Vanessa in our Intro to Apprenticeship Video!

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