Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you’re too old or you’re a female [so you can’t work in construction], that’s the old school way…we’re a force to be reckoned with out in the fieldJenifer Arce, Building Trades and Apprenticeship Readiness Program Instructor
Being the only woman at a job site is not new for Jenifer Arce and Jesse Gomez-Villeda. In fact, that imbalance has only helped them thrive. When Jenifer started in the field 10 years ago, she didn’t even know that there were opportunities for women to work in construction. It was only after a dinner with her cousin—a general foreman on a large-scale solar farm that had just broke ground in the Imperial Valley—that she realized it might be the right path for her. “I became an Ironworker apprentice with Local 229 at age 43, after 25 years of dead-end jobs. I decided to just go for it,” Jenifer explains.
Jesse was inspired by her dad’s work as a business agent for cement masons, where she saw first-hand how much security and support a union provides for its members. She was hooked after completing an eight-week ironworker pre-apprenticeship with Iron Workers Local 3787, which guaranteed sponsorship into Local 229. Jesse’s passion for safety pushed her to elevate her career with different trainings and certifications, such as OSHA 500 and 510 Train the Trainer. Through the latter came the opportunity to become an instructor with the Workforce Partnership’s Apprenticeship Readiness Program (ARP) while a member of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council (Building Trades).
ARP: An Earn-While-You-Learn Opportunity, Open to All
There are countless opportunities within the construction trades but knowing where to start—or how to choose a trade that they can excel in—can be overwhelming for job seekers. The Building Trades works with 22 different union trades and within each trade are different scopes of work. ARP opens a gateway to the trades, providing participants with the necessary skills and knowledge to choose, obtain and succeed in a registered apprenticeship. Additionally, all ARP instructors—like Jenifer and Jesse— teach the nationally recognized Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) and organize job site visits hosted by employer partners around San Diego.
”ARP students are walking away with more industry knowledge and experience than the average apprentice, which gives them the edge. They stand out against their counterparts, and they are ahead of the game,” says Jesse. Jenifer adds, “Apprenticeships offer stability and medical benefits, you earn as you learn, plus it can go toward college credits. It was the best decision I ever made, and I am passionate about sharing information about working in the construction industry with ARP participants, especially women.”
Trailblazing the Way for Women in Construction
Being a female instructor in a male-dominated industry means shifting culture and normalizing that women can be in the industry and have a successful place in their trade of choiceJesse Gomez-Villeda, Building Trades and Apprenticeship Readiness Program Instructor
A decade later, Jenifer and Jesse are the only two women to be OSHA 500 and 510 certified in their union. The disparity persists nationwide as well; only 2.5% of workers in the construction industry are women. However, Jenifer and Jesse are living proof that can change. In 2023, 17% of all ARP and CCJ graduates were female. For a time, “Just putting on a work belt [as a woman], you were trailblazing; we are pioneers of our industry,” says Jesse.
Jenifer says, “In my last cohort, I had a female student the first week of class pull me aside and say, ‘I feel like I’m too old. I think I’m going to drop the class because I’m taking someone’s spot.’ And I said, ‘Well, how old are you?’ She says, ‘I’m 41’. I said, ‘Honey, I was 43 years old when I started. You take these work boots and go out there and give it your best shot. Just complete this class.’ And I’ll tell you, she was one of my best students. When we did hands-on welding, she ran the best welding pass that I had ever seen. Don’t ever let anybody tell you you’re too old or you’re a female. It’s a different way of thinking, that’s the old school way.”
Jesse adds, “Being a female instructor in a male-dominated industry means shifting culture and normalizing that women can be in the industry and have a successful place in their trade of choice.” She continues, “Although retention rates [for women in construction] are growing, it’s still new territory. If we can be the change or help dictate a positive direction for women and minorities, then it’s a privilege.”
Thank you to the San Diego College of Continuing Education for allowing us to photograph on their campus.