Building a dream

Female students at Orleans Tech share their stories for Women in Construction Week.

Breaking the mold: Rhawnhurst native Melissa Elcheck, shown working on a air conditioning unit, is the only woman in her class at Orleans Technical College. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

Melissa Elcheck enjoys being called one of the boys.

Moving through the HVAC room at Orleans Technical College, it’s clear Elcheck (who told her classmates to call her “Uncle Melissa”) knows her way around the many heavy, intimidating-looking machines. She’s the only woman in the class.

She had worked in the cooking industry for 25 years, where she cleaned off heavy machinery regularly. When machines broke down, she noticed the same guy would come in and perform repetitive repairs.

“I cleaned so much of the equipment, I said, it’s time to learn to fix it,” she said.

That’s what gave her the “lightbulb” to come to Orleans.

Elcheck said that being a woman gave her no trepidation when she signed up to take classes at Orleans last year.

“Everywhere you go there’s men and women,” she said simply. “I think [gender-dominated industries] are going away.”

That’s not entirely true. Elcheck isn’t just “one of the guys.” According to the National Association of Women in Construction, about 9.1 percent of the construction workforce is made up of women.

March 5 through 11 is Women in Construction Week, meant to celebrate female leaders in the industry. Elcheck doesn’t understand why there aren’t more.

“I was actually shocked to come here and see I was the only girl in HVAC,” she said. “I shouldn’t be.”

Elcheck has been building toward this dream for awhile. The 44-year-old Rhawnhurst native wasn’t able to go to school after high school, and finding a job was more about survival than pursuing a career.

“My parents didn’t get along and they fought a lot, so it was fight or flight for me,” she said. “I took off.”

Unfortunately, she had nowhere to go.

Elcheck was homeless for three months before she was able to find a cheap room and a job at Kmart. With the support of her friends, she was able to put together a life, and now has four kids (all daughters) she hopes to take care of with money earned from her career in the industry.

Just don’t ask her where.

“I’ll work at whatever comes my way,” she said. “You go in, you fix something, and you leave. It’s amazing.”

Elcheck isn’t the only student at Orleans who has high hopes for the construction industry. For Linnette Maria Jackson, she’s been building toward it her whole life.

“When I was younger I didn’t have as many places to live, and moving from house to house, you want a house of your own,” she said.

A career in carpentry: Linnette Maria Jackson (center) smiles with her classmates at Orleans Technical College. She says she wanted to construct buildings since she was 10 years old and coming to Orleans to study carpentry has given her that opportunity. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

Though her parents pushed her toward nursing, Jackson knew that she wanted to construct buildings for her career since she was 9 or 10 years old. Coming to Orleans to study carpentry has finally given her that opportunity.

Inside the school sits a fully constructed house that, in the perspective of being under a ceiling and between walls of another building, looks tiny on the outside. But stepping inside, there’s enough space to satisfy a college student looking for a place to live.

Jackson said male counterparts in the industry are surprised she is involved in carpentry, and her classmates joke around saying she “don’t know nothing.”

“They’re playing around and trying to prepare me for what is next, because I am going to get it. I just need to get tougher,” she said.

After having her son, Jackson said she wanted nothing more than to build a stable life for him.

For student Akese Bailey, being a woman has never held her back from trying to break into the industry — in fact, she’s back at Orleans for her second shot. After studying building maintenance, she returned to the school to hone her skills in residential and commercial electricity, the category she could not quite master her first time around.

Bailey was a certified nursing assistant, but said she realized it was time to leave the field when coworkers started treating her wrong and putting her down. She would help her father with building rehabilitation sometimes, and decided to switch fields.

“I want to be a business owner or investor, where my money will work for me,” she said. “I want to distribute the knowledge I have in the field.”

Being a woman in a male-dominated field didn’t even make her blink.

“If a man made it, it can be fixed,” she said.

Just like Bailey and Jackson, entering the construction field is helping Elcheck achieve her dreams.

“I’m a simple person who just likes doing a good job and paying my bills,” she said. “As far as dreams go, if any of my children followed in my footsteps, that would be a dream come true.” ••

Potential tradeswomen are invited to Orleans at 2770 Red Lion Road from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, March 9. Visit orleanstech.edu to set up an appointment.