Repairing the Damage
Construction apprentices trade handcuffs for hammers.
Every Saturday from dawn to dusk, a dozen volunteers and five pre-apprentices meet in a dusty corner lot on 1521 Pele St. to put finishing touches on a two-story duplex they began building in November 1999. Amid the chatters and hammering that compete with noisy traffic on adjacent H-1, nothing about this group is unusual – except that the pre-apprentices are former inmates from the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua.
The weekend project, Building Women Pre-Apprenticeship, is a chance for them to reconstruct damaged pasts. A collaboration with the Contractors Construction Education Foundation, it includes classroom and hands-on education by the female-only construction firm, Wahine Builders Inc. and Honolulu Habitat for Humanity. “Getting out of prison and getting a minimum wage job doesn’t offer much room for growth,” says Clarice Cornett, president of Wahine Builders. “This pre-apprenticeship leads to apprenticeship; it’ll give them a good foundation to start on.”
Not only has the Women’s Build boosted the morale of participants, it also exposes women to a traditionally male-centered workforce, where females comprise only 1.8 percent of Hawaii’s construction industry.
Despite such drops, Wahine Builders since 1986 has witnessed, and survived, the industry’s boom-bust cycles. The majority of the company’s $1 million in annual revenues is generated through large remodeling and electric jobs. Wahine Builders is the primary subcontractor and construction manager for the West Loch Golf Course Comfort Station and the Mililani Mauka Community Park Comfort Station. This year, the company renovated a historic Diamond Head home for $75,000. Meanwhile, plans are under way for the next Women’s Build project. Fifty women have signed up for the 10-member program, which will include thrice weekly training at the duplex on Pele Street. To keep the project alive, Wahine Builders over the past year raised about $30,000 in tax-deductable donations. The next Women’s Build structure will be a 1,500-square-foot green house on the correction center’s grounds. Cornett is confident that the program will continue to grow and garner more interest. “I would like to do this program so that one day, we can train women from the prison and from all walks of life – for anyone who wants a change in career,” she says.“The financial reality of the marketplace is, anytime a profession is male-dominated, the pays are better,” Cornett says, adding that although the construction industry shows hints of improvement, over the past years there was a significant decline of skilled workers in the state. Hawaii’s construction industry employed approximately 21,550 people in 1999, according to the Hawaii Department of Labor. That’s a 22 percent drop from 1995 (26,300) and a 50 percent decline over 1990 (32,300). This past January began with more optimism, with 24,200 total workers.