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The Equal Chance to Learn: 5 Questions with Carpenter Eleni Vournas

Every month, we sit down with female trades workers to discuss the challenges they face in their industry, what they love about their work and how they think the trades can grow to provide equal opportunities for all workers. This month, we talked with Eleni Vournas, whose travels and work as a carpenter have taken her around the world, from her early life in Greece to volunteering in Haiti for over a year. 

1. Tell us a little bit about your role as a carpentry forewoman. What area of carpentry do you specialize in and what projects around Portland have you worked on recently?

Within the Pacific NW  Carpenters Union here in Portland, we have 4 main branches of carpentry you can follow: General Carpenters, Exterior/Interior Specialist (EIS), Pile Drivers, and Millwrights. I'm within the General Carpenters and have mostly done concrete and rigging. 

I am currently a journeyed-out union carpenter and have an excellent rapport with my company and crew. In the past four years, I have worked on the Kelly Butte water reservoir, the Beaverton High School and the SE Foster low-income housing project. I built the Daimler Trucks of America headquarters from foundation to finish, then proceeded to the OHSU Cancer Research Center, where I was the first carpenter on site along with my superintendent to kickstart the project. I also spent 8 months on the NW Canopy Hilton hotel, and currently am on the NW Raleigh low-income apartments. 

2. You’ve spent time everywhere, from Oregon to Greece to Haiti. What were some of the most impactful moments of seeing how tradeswomen work around the world?

I can say with confidence that there isn't a single female trades worker in either Greece or Haiti to this day. Every time I reveal to someone in Greece, including my family back home, that I am a 'kaloupatzìs' (Greek for 'concrete form builder') they laugh out loud. It's usually followed by "really?". Most of the time, they don't show signs of belief until they have seen a picture of me in full-on gear or hanging off a wall during a build. 

During my 16 months of volunteering in Haiti, women would stop me on the street to praise me for being so 'fò' (Haitian Creole for 'strong'). They would go on to explain that there's no way they could ever do what I do.

These women carry full buckets of water on their heads every day back from the river, wash baskets and baskets of clothing by hand while sitting on rocks, and walk barefoot for miles daily as their only means of transportation. Every time I attempted to show that these physical strengths definitely add up to be equally as "fò," if not more so than my ability to carry boulders and build, the women would just laugh and protest with, "Non, non. Ou pi fò!" (trans: No, no. You're stronger!)

Starting all the way back from Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., we were warned how difficult it would be to thrive in a male-dominated industry. I've worked with many men who have  said things like 'I've only worked with one other woman in the 15 years I've been doing this' or 'she's a good carpenter, for a woman.'

My goal has never been to make a groundbreaking change in the industry or reverse the ratios of male vs. female trades workers. When I came in, I wanted the equal chance to learn and do the best that I could do.

In my work here in Oregon, I've been lucky. Whether that's due to the open-mindedness of the companies I've worked for or the quality of my work, I have been warmly accepted into this male dominant workforce and have made great friends along the way! I'm not going to lie though, I have enjoyed disintegrating some stereotypes.

3. How have trades organizations and unions made a difference in your career? What are some things people looking at a career in the trades may not know about unions?

First and foremost, shout out to Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., which educated me on the options I had when entering the trades workforce, provided initial much-needed physical training and the mental support required to jump into a trades career!

Americans often debate the integrity and principals of unions in this day and age. I challenge everyone to understand that every union is individually governed. There may be unions that morph into something completely different than the fundamentals of workforce unity and rights.

However, there are still unions out there that trades workers founded to create quality products, earn fair wages, guarantee workforce safety, and champion equal rights. I can't speak for other unions but I do speak for mine when I say the Pacific NW Carpenters Union stands for and strongly promotes all of those values.

Starting with the 4-year apprenticeship program, the Pacific NW Carpenters Institute (PNCI) trains new carpenters with on-site experience and two 40-hour apprenticeship classes per term. This helps them better understand the work at hand and broaden their horizons with ever-evolving industry technology and tools of the trade. Experienced instructors who hold leadership positions teach all classes.

PNCI takes a well-rounded approach to train its workforce. In addition to the required classes,  offers night classes for further skill development and official certifications, like foreman and superintendent training. They also provide a number of spots for each leadership training throughout the year at our Carpenters International Training Center (ITC) in Las Vegas.

Following in the footsteps of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc, the Pacific NW Carpenters Institute (PNCI) has also begun a pre-apprenticeship program. I was part of the initial trial group, which completed the 5-week training. We ultimately aided in the decision of the director to continue providing this introductory training for future apprentices. Since then, the pre-apprenticeship program has been shortened to 2 weeks but is still a very efficient, non-committal way of testing out the waters of a career in carpentry.

Union members also reap the benefits of fair wage agreements with employers. First-term apprentices come in at half of the journeyman wages. Each term their salary advances up a pay scale. Journeyman wages are currently negotiated at $36.63/hr, plus another $16.25/hr paid by employers for each carpenter's benefits package.

4. What are some of the Moxie and Moss features you haven’t seen in workwear before or especially like?

Having to climb up and down anywhere from 9' to 20' columns and walls all day, I am a huge fan of the high amount of stretch in the Mavens. So far, my Moxie and Moss jeans have lived up to my standards. The pre-made slit at the bottom of the right tool pocket has been my favorite feature so far, as it allows me to carry more selective tools than just my pliers.

5. What advice would you give to a woman who wants to begin her career in carpentry or another trade? 

  • Get pumped to work your ass off! 
  • Sometimes just a smile could mean the world to someone, especially these grouchy old trades workers!
  • Make friends and reach out to all trades on site- team mentality will always thrive!


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