Pam Gilmore and her children, Khloe, 11, and Mason, 13.
Pam Gilmore remembers the day she found hope again. It was Nov. 4, 2021, and she’d been living in a homeless shelter in DeKalb, Illinois, with her two preteen kids for four months after her turbulent marriage finally reached its breaking point.
She attended an informational session about a new, paid training program in the construction trades starting up in January at the site of the nearby Meta Data Center. She listened to someone from construction company Mortenson describe the jobs she could become qualified for — carpenter, sheet metal worker, electrician — and thought, “Why not me?”
“I applied that very day,” she said. She’d been a stay-at-home mom for eight years, with only stints as a customer service rep, locksmith and gas station clerk on her resume. But she desperately wanted her kids to have a normal life again, and she just knew she could do it. “I am one tough cookie,” said Gilmore, 37.
Six months later, her world is transformed. After graduating from the Advancing Careers in Trades program, a joint project of five construction companies and social media giant Meta, Gilmore is a wage-earning, registered carpenter apprentice. She holds certifications in first aid, CPR, job readiness, OSHA safety rules and electrical awareness, among other topics. She works at the Mortenson data center construction site every day from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; her son and daughter have to get themselves to the school bus from their new rental housing. And Gilmore has a new, exciting future in mind: four years as a carpenter apprentice, then journeyman status, then maybe a role as a project manager.
“I’m over the moon with my new path in life,” she said, as the tears flowed. “I am so grateful.”
A lot of people equate the construction trades with menial work, and “menial work with menial pay,” said Lynn Littlejohn, vice president of community affairs and development for Mortenson. But as of May 2021, the median salary for a construction worker, $48,210, exceeded that for all U.S. occupations, $45,760. The median salary for a boilermaker was $64,290, and for an elevator installer, $97,860. With the right training, construction can be lucrative.
The National Center for Construction Education and Research has a couple of programs aimed at promoting construction career possibilities. Build Your Future provides scholarships, talking points and promotional materials on careers in construction. Career Starter will launch nationwide in 2022 as a sort of LinkedIn for entry-level construction jobs and candidates, available free of charge. There are job boards for experienced tradespeople, said Jennifer Wilkerson, vice president of innovation and advancement for NCCER. “But contractors need help finding entry-level people,” she said. And entry-level people need to know how the industry works. “People know how to apply for college. People don’t know how to get into construction.”
There is work ahead to fill construction’s labor pipeline. But it’s clear that the Advancing Careers in Trades program program benefits more than its participants. It benefits families and, by extension, communities.
Recently Pam Gilmore’s 13-year-old son asked his mom for money to go to the movies with a friend. “It’s the first time he felt comfortable asking me for money for something like that,” she said. Over the past few months, he’s watched his mom study every night, quizzed her before her math test and gained confidence seeing her succeed. Not long ago, he volunteered to be a guide for new students at his school. And her 11-year-old daughter “thinks it’s so cool that I’m in this program, in construction … using ladders and tools.”