In celebration of National Tradesmen Day (September 16) and National Construction Appreciation Week (September 19 – 23), the Carpenter Contractor Trust is highlighting four union tradespeople who have dedicated their lives to building (quite literally) a better future for the United States. Michael Conner, Lauren LaForge, Layla Bibi and Abbey Agius all come from vastly different backgrounds and represent several generations of U.S. trade union builders. What unites them, however, is their commitment and dedication to their craft, which is paving the way for the future of the U.S. construction industry.
Conner is a veteran of the United States Army, a piledriver and a current representative for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. After spending 20 years as an Army Ranger, he started a career in the building trades by attending commercial deep sea diver school at Divers Academy International in New Jersey, which has since become the only union-run diving school where carpenters train other carpenters in underwater welding. He also participated in the union carpenters' piledriver apprenticeship program. As a tradesman, Conner worked on digging deep foundations for high-rise commercial buildings and has helped build momentum for the burgeoning U.S. offshore wind industry.
“There are so many options and opportunities for veterans in the construction industry today,” Conner says. “You don't have to go to college or get a job as a government contractor to have a fulfilling career outside of the military. Union carpenters are at the forefront of clean energy and leading the charge on rebuilding our country. It's time for veterans to be able to make an impact on this country's future and join the trades.”
“The greatest part about my job is being able to accomplish one task and then, 50 or 60 years later, see the work you did still standing,” Conner adds.
LaForge is an interior systems carpenter in northern New Jersey. She started her career in construction 13 years ago after serving in the Marine Corps. Just like Conner, LaForge learned her trade through the union's apprenticeship program. LaForge started out by working with her cousin, a residential carpenter. Today, she works on steel framing and sheet rocking projects for large commercial construction sites for Carpenters Union Local 253. For instance, she recently had a hand in building a new hospital site in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“Construction has given me the opportunity to have an exciting career, where no two days are the same,” LaForge says. “The new hospital in Ridgewood that I worked on will help save thousands of lives. Not a lot of people can say that about their jobs.”
As part of her training, LaForge has studied an intensive infection control risk assessment program led by union carpenters to help safeguard construction worksites at health care facilities.
With 17 years of carpentry experience, Bibi, a Council Representative, is now serving as the Committee Chair of EASRCC's Sisters in the Brotherhood, an organization that helps bring more women into the trade. She is also a member of the National Association of Women in Construction, an association dedicated to career growth and development for women in construction. In her role, Bibi is closely involved in the EASRCC's Carpenters Apprentice Ready Program, a 12-week, weekend pre-apprenticeship program created to enhance career opportunities for underrepresented groups.
Bibi's involvement with CARP allows her to reach women of all ages, encouraging them and other minorities to enter the trades. Throughout her career, she has learned to deal with the stigma of being a woman on construction sites and has since advocated for women in the trades. Now that women's employment in the construction industry has increased by 3.2%, the largest in any industry, Bibi is seeing her efforts result in a real paradigm shift.
“My mentor told me that if I wanted to see a change, I had the obligation to make it happen myself,” Bibi says. “I knew that if I stayed in this career, the next woman hoping to be a carpenter would feel more comfortable seeing another woman's face.”
At 23, New Jersey-native Agius found her place in the construction industry as a flooring specialist, laying hardwood for commercial and residential construction projects in the region, and as a steering committee member for Sisters in the Brotherhood. After completing the CARP program at 18, Agius signed up for a full four-year carpenter apprenticeship program, which has helped double her starting wage and granted her access to life-changing benefits. She is now leading her current worksite as a foreman, ensuring the productivity of daily operations on the job.
“It's really cool to see younger generations starting to figure out that we belong in the trades and that there is a place for us,” Agius says. “We are capable of doing something that was seen as a man's job for so long. It's crazy empowering to see that you can do this work. We're going to be building stuff forever and construction is a great place for young women.”
National Tradesmen Day and National Construction Appreciation Week were created to honor the men and women whose skills and hard work help build America. Through programs like CARP, more people are joining the trades, contributing to the construction industry and laying the foundation for America's future every day.