Tradeswomen Tuesday: Suzannne Scheans, Navy Veteran and Retired Steamfitter, Local 290 Oregon
I volunteered for the US Navy in 1975 to get money for college from the GI Bill. My test scores to enter the Navy were so high that I qualified for two very elite jobs. However, women were still not allowed into the Nuclear Submarine program, so I truly only had one choice. I spent my four years in the Navy, both stateside and overseas, working in aviation communications.
I retired from the Steamfitting and Welding Trade in 2009, when I was 52, because of medical reasons. I had worked heavy overtime and traveled for quite a few years before retirement, all the while fighting and beating cancer, but the pain, fatigue, and weakness of Rheumatoid Arthritis knocked me out of the trade for good.
I also wanted to share that I love to sing and I am a collector and singer of Union Folk music and songs. I am by no means a professional singer, but I did win third place, singing and playing guitar, in a Talent Contest at my Navy Air Field, Chase Field by Beeville Texas, many years ago. Over the years I have participated at many Labor Rallies and marches, handing out song sheets and leading songs.
When did you join the trade and what attracted you to it?
I was the first girl to be in the “power Mechanics Cluster” at Beaverton High School. The classes included auto mechanics, auto body repair, and gas and electric welding. My graduation was covered in local news and newspapers. One local headline reads, “First girl to graduate from Fisher Body School likes needlepoint, car welding”! It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I learned about Title IX. That’s when I learned that it was Title IX’s lifting of restrictions on women’s training that made a real difference in my life. Before Title IX, one of my friends from Idaho was told she could not take science in high school – “women don’t need it!” Anyone that likes good food knows that science is the basis of cooking and baking.
I found out about apprenticeships many years after getting out of the Navy. I had graduated from college as planned, but felt very dead-ended in marketing and sales positions. I took a class for single moms – a career training class – and a Journey-level electrician spoke to our class one evening. She inspired me to take a pre-apprenticeship class called B-FIT to enter the trades. Since I had learned to weld at Beaverton High School, I knew I wanted to weld, so I applied to the carpenters, electricians, and the pipe trades apprenticeships. The Steamfitters were the first to call me. I became a Steamfitter Apprentice in January 1993.
Describe your first years in the trade.
I was very confident and friendly. Having been in the US Navy, I knew a bit about being one of the few women on the job. But it was discouraging when co-workers were openly anti-female on the job; I learned to stay away from them and be cautious of co-workers.
Early in my apprenticeship, there was a macho guy on my crew who would take any remark I made and twist it into something with a sexual connotation or call me his girlfriend. It made me uncomfortable and I made sure that I was never alone with him on the job. His remarks did affect me – I was always quiet and tried not to talk when he was around. I just wanted to do my job and not have to deal with personalities. I learned to not share personal information with men on the job and to keep the conversations to work related topics.
What did you like most about your trade?
I love the feeling I get when building things with my own hands. I am unaware that I do it, but I have been told many times that I sing while I am welding!
What I also liked a lot was that I had many co-workers who helped me learn the skills I needed to be successful. Not just pulling wrenches, but the political and organizational skills I needed to be a successful union member too. A few became lifetime friends and mentors, along with their families.
What have been the challenges you have faced?
The physicality of the trades was quite a challenge for me as I have always had problems staying slim. After an on-the-job injury, I had a large weight gain and it took years for me to get back into shape. Everybody works injured or sick; you just have to keep working, there are no sick days.
What is needed to be successful in the trades?
I am a positive and can-do person. Taking on a task with professional enthusiasm and doing the best I could, in a timely manner, helped me earn a good reputation in my trade. Having good math and reading skills also help. I read everything I could about the pipe trades and carried a library of books with me on the job. If there was a difficult angled offset that needed to be laid-out, my co-workers came to me for help and we would use my reference books.
Has being a steamfitter supported or hindered your “work-life” balance?
The long hours of overtime on jobs made me rely on my spouse to take care of our daughter. My apprenticeship training was twice a week at night, so work days were very long for five years. My contractors would let me leave the job early for school, but my pay was not docked.
My union has some great family events, picnics, and Christmas parties where spouses and children are welcome and we all meet together. It does help balance the demands of construction work a bit.
Now my daughter is grown and has a little girl of her own. Just a few weeks ago, she demonstrated how much she respects my career choice and my mechanical abilities: all by herself, she purchased, loaded into a truck, removed the old, and installed a new dishwasher. She did ask me to watch and advise, but she was the person turning wrenches. I am so proud of her. I hope she and I pass on our mechanical abilities to her daughter too.
What is your vision for the future for women in the trades?
I visualize women owning and running large and small construction companies with women workers on the crews. I also see that the future is here now and it is becoming widely accepted and standard that women are valued as workers on the construction site.
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