In 1979, Beth Szillagyi, an honor roll college student, was desperate to find a job. Even with her Illinois Army National Guard education benefits, the burden of college costs and keeping a roof over her head and food on the table were too much.
After months of searching and time in lousy sales job, she says, “I saw ‘my’ job” in the want ads of the local newspaper.
“I don’t know how I knew it was my job, I just knew it. ‘Local 84 is taking applications for the apprenticeship. Women and minorities encouraged to apply.’”
Today, the member of Sheet Metal Workers (SMWIA) Local 218 in Springfield is not only a 30-year veteran of the building trades, but an author. Her book, Hey, Lady! Your Tin Snips Are Showing!, is a fictional account of one woman’s journey through the construction trades, starting in the less-than-enlightened late 1970s, when a woman in a hard hat working in a traditional “man’s job” was not only a rare sight, but one that could stir anger and resentment.
In an interview in the current issue of SMWIA’s The Journal, Szillagyi talks about her first encounter at the union hall.
I went to the union hall as a green and naïve 22-year-old and survived my first hurdle in the trades: the typical cigar-smoking, raspy-voiced business agent. May he rest in peace, but he scared the bejesus out of me back then. The year I took the test, there were 200 applicants, four of them women.
She found out she had passed the test and been accepted in SMWIA’s apprenticeship program when she got a phone call telling her to get down to the union hall because “Dolly, you’ve got yourself a job.”
I was bound and determined that no one would stop me, even though I had heard that men at the hall were actually betting money that I wouldn’t survive the apprenticeship….Now I am known well enough around the area and have a lot of old friends who would stick up for me should the need arise, but getting to that point was quite a challenge.
Those bets were never collected, and in the 30 years since, Szillagyi says many attitudes have changed.
A good example of how the attitude has changed for the better is my boss who is now retired and who was also my shop teacher back then. He had the faith in me a few years back to hand me prints to two difficult and need-to-be-done-right-now jobs at two hospitals two summers in a row.
Today, there are vast opportunities for women in the construction trades. But there also are some lingering remnants of traditionalist attitude about a woman’s role in the construction workplace. Szillagyi gives the following advice to a woman looking for a career in the trades:
Get yourself some good sturdy work boots and don’t expect special privileges. Keep showing up and keep your sense of humor. You have just as much right to be there as the next guy. If you work hard and don’t put up with anything, pretty soon you may be surprised at who is in your corner.
Click here to read the full interview.
Hey, Lady! Your Tin Snips Are Showing! is available at SynergEBooks as a paperback, e-book or CD-ROM.