As an apprentice at Local 28 in New York, Jennifer Fox Mann feels like she has finally found her footing. "I needed a career," she explains, "and one night at dinner I looked up at my dad and said lets get me into the union." Now Mann is a third-generation sheet metal worker in a family full of tin knockers, which include her grandfather and his three brothers, her father and his brother, " a bunch of cousins," her brother and her husband.
"I guess its in my DNA at this point," she says. Upon filling out an apprenticeship application, Mann enrolled at Nontraditional Employment for Women, a small apprentice type program to teach women basics like how to read a ruler and use a hammer etc.
"My father was a very active member in Local 28 and his work ethic and drive made him someone very dependable," she says. "He has always been very passionate about the union, and I guess there was always a part of me that wanted to find out what that was all about."
Mann is now a part of a growing group of women who are changing the face of the sheet metal industry. She is determined to make a difference and open doors for other women in the process.
We’re you faced with a situation where you had to choose between going into the trades or going to a college? Why did you choose the trades over college?
I actually did both. For me it wasn't one over the other as much as I needed to provide for my family. I needed to get a job that would make me financially stable and take care of my family medically. this was the trade i grew up around and felt that as it took care of me it would do the same for my family.
When will you finish your apprenticeship?
I will graduate this August, and I cant wait. This will be a huge accomplishment for me not only as a third generation sheet metal worker but as the only female in my family to be a sheet metal worker. I am especially proud of the fact that I will be honored in front of my father and grandfather. After all, all we ever want is to make our families proud and this is just going to complete that.
Why did you choose your particular career focus over others? For example, why welding? Or why drafting?
I love welding. The whole concept of fusing two pieces together is amazing. I have a passion for working on old cars with my father and brother. Living in New York, cars get rusty and then they need patch work done. I guess I always wanted to be able to say, "Oh I can do that, dad. Let me weld that."
The company I am working for right now does some amazing welding, and when I got there I was in awe. It just made me want to get more certifications in welding so that I could do all this beautiful welding.
Did a part of you ever consider that it may be difficult for you as a woman in the trades? What inspired you to keep going?
Growing up in the union, I saw women at the picnics and parades and elections. I heard my dad talk about women on his jobs when I was little. When I met these women and I realized that they were a lot like me. I was raised doing house work. We put an addition on our house, new bathrooms, new floors decks anything you could think of. We were always busy fixing things around the house so I knew how to use so many tools that doing that kind of a job didn't in phase me.
There were a few women who became idols to me and seeing what they could accomplish made me want to be like that so little girls could look up at me and feel that same sense of wonder.
In starting your apprenticeship, what was the most challenging part for you?
For me in my apprenticeship, the hardest thing was stepping out as an individual. I am married so unless you know who my family is, I wont tell anyone because I don't want to be treated differently. I know there are members who love my dad and I'm sure there are even some who hate him. I never wanted to be compared to him, and I always felt like I had to explain myself.
My father was an amazing sheet metal worker, and I hope that I can continue that legacy. But I go to work, and I do all my tests. Any extras that I have received have been because of my hard work. I feel like I will always have to separate that, and I'm sure there will always been someone to say that she only got that job because of her father.
How has working in the trades changed your life and career trajectory?
Local 28 has made me a much stronger individual. I have done the apprentice regional contest twice, and I feel that they made me want to push myself to be the best version of myself. This work is intricate and beautiful, and it makes me appreciate everything my family built with this union.
I just want to add to that legacy with my own touch. I'm hoping to stick with welding through my career and hopefully turn that into an instructor position.
In what ways do you think leadership for women in the trades is changing?
I think that as apprentice classes come out with more and more women we will see more on our election ballots. I know that I intend to run for an elected position in the union when I'm ready. I think it helps make more women feel comfortable if they looked up at the dais and saw a female running the meeting or a female business agent come to the job site and fight for our work. I (also) think as we continue to move forward hopefully a woman will soon make their way up to the business agent spot and hopefully then business manager.
What advice would you give a woman considering a career path in the trades?
When I went back to NEW as a tradeswoman speaker, I told the entire class that just by being in that building we were breaking down walls. If you want to do something outside your comfort zone, go for it.
At the end of the day, its not for everyone. You have to be ready to work yourself up the ladder and prove everyday that you are truly worth that paycheck. But don't change who you are to try and fit in. Be yourself and get ready to learn something new.
When you see all that this trade has to offer, you can find something that speaks to you and gets you excited. Find something you are passionate about and run with it. There are so many different paths within the centralized sheet metal industry. The days always go faster when you have fun and that makes it easier to go back the next day.