Sheet Metal Worker
Local 28, New York City
“When I turned 40, I decided to get a ‘woman’s job.’ I lasted nine months before calling my union and coming back to the trade a few days later,” says Pauline Sealy, a sheet metal worker with nearly 29 years of experience. Her energy and passion for her work is infectious. “I really love what I do.”
Pauline always wanted a career in a non-traditional field, and she discovered sheet metal work accidentally. After graduating from an introductory program for women in technical career
s at a local technical college, Pauline had hoped to become a carpenter like her aunt. However, she received no replies to her application to the unions for carpenters, electricians, and painters. When her counselor told her that the sheet metal workers union was hiring apprentices, Pauline asked what they did. She laughs, saying that the the counselor said, “I have no idea.” Undeterred, Pauline still applied and took the test. She was excited to find that the test covered not only basic math, but also spatial relations, or translating a flat pattern into a three-dimensional object. She’d loved these types of activities as a child, and aced the exam. Three days later, she had a job offer and was on her way.
Unfortunately, her first days of work did nothing to clarify her new career. During a phone call after her second day on the job, she told her mom “I’m making silver boxes, but I have no idea why.” Pauline resolved to stay on the job till payday on Friday, when her first paycheck would cover her hours from Monday through Wednesday. When she received her check, she was amazed. Her wages of $9.06 per hour were far more than the 1985 minimum wage of $3.35. As a new mom with an eight-month-old daughter, Pauline says, “I realized that this job could do a lot for us.”
As she got the hang of the work, Pauline fell in love with her job and thrived. She says, “I know I’m one of few women who can say that I haven’t had to deal with too many bad guys. Most were willing to teach me, and I avoided the rest like the plague, but watched them from afar to still learn from them.” The biggest challenge, however, came after she married another apprentice and became pregnant. Pauline says that she was the sixth or seventh woman in her local, and “they didn’t know what to do with me. One leader actually said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do, we never prepared for this.’” Together, they weathered the challenge, and Pauline had her second daughter during her apprenticeship.
Despite the trade not offering much support during her pregnancy, Pauline credits the daily schedule of her trade for helping her to be a great mom. Her mornings would start at 2am, but she was able to be with her children in the afternoons. “I didn’t mind the mornings, because when they needed me, I was there,” says Pauline, describing how her job allowed her to be home to help with homework and attend afterschool activities. The great schedule, high wages, and an inspiring experience at “Take Your Daughter to Work” day were enticing for one of her daughters, but Pauline encouraged her to instead go to college, and her daughter is now an accountant.
Although Pauline dissuaded her daughter from entering the trades, she is hopeful that more women will see the opportunities available in the trades. She wants to use the next phase of her career to bring more women into non-traditional careers. Pauline will graduate soon from National Labor College, studying Labor Health and Safety. She hopes to become an instructor within an apprentice program or at a technical high school. “I enjoy talking to women and girls who feel like they have no way out [of the inner-city]. There is a way to provide for your family.”