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'Lighting' the way for women in the trades: Pair overcomes obstacles with tenacity, hard work and attention to the smallest detail

February 13, 2006

If women have a tough time breaking into the construction trades, then Melanie Goldman, president of Goldman Electrical Contracting Inc., and Carla Partin, a union journeyman electrician, have managed to beat the odds.

Both women have encountered obstacles in this mostly male field, but both were determined to succeed.

Goldman, 32, runs the electrical company she owns with her husband, Bill. She has heard men say many times "Just have your husband call me," but she doesn't let that pass.

"If they think I'm a secretary and my husband has a company," she said, "I set them straight in a professional way."

She describes the construction field as a "closed and close-knit community" where she views herself as an outsider, not just because of her gender but also because of her age.

"We are part of [the National Electrical Contractors Association]," Goldman said, "and whenever I'm at a union or NECA activity, it is usually me and a roomful of men who are older than I am."

Admitting that at first she felt intimidated because she was largely ignored, she says it wasn't so much because of chauvinism but rather the men were puzzled to see a woman at a predominantly male gathering.

"It's more about people saying or thinking, 'Who is that? Is she lost? What is she doing here?'" she said.

To get past the skepticism, Goldman warmly greeted the men and let them know she was there to learn.

"Lots of electrical contractors are tightlipped, so a kind of tension exists," Goldman said. "And these are your competitors. I don't take things personally."

The apprentice

Youth hasn't been an obstacle for Partin, who, at 28, was older than many of the men in her apprenticeship class five years ago.

As a woman, however, Partin said she had to work harder to gain acceptance. "You're not taken seriously as an apprentice by your journeyman or the other male co-workers," she said. "You have to prove to them that you are worthy."

According to the IU Institute for the Study of Labor in Society, only 2.6 percent of electrical apprentices in 2004 were women.

Partin, now 33, won her journeyman electrician designation last May, upon successfully completing a five-year apprenticeship with perfect attendance. Her journeyman didn't make it easy in the beginning, making her "run and go get stuff," Partin said. "He wouldn't teach me anything."

To prove her mettle, by the second week Partin started carrying two or three of everything they might need in her pockets. When her journeyman told her to go fetch something, she'd pull it out of her pocket.

"I had everything he needed," Partin said. "He couldn't get rid of me, so he knew I was serious about learning the trade. Then he started teaching me."

This was not just a one-time occurrence, Partin said. "I had to go through the same thing with almost every journeyman" [I apprenticed with].

Partin wasn't asking for special favors. "In the apprenticeship, I didn't want to be treated any different from a guy," she said, admitting that some people underestimated her because of her small size.

As an apprentice, she earned the respect of some longtime journeymen,l such as Tim O'Donnell, an electrician for 32 years.

"She's an asset to our industry," he said. "As for her work habits, I couldn't ask for better. She takes the initiative and starts working on whatever needs to be done."

John Griffin, another journeyman electrician with 28 years in the field, said Partin is "as good as any apprentice I've ever worked with. She's a good hard worker and will do anything you ask."

Strong reputation opens doors

Goldman has also managed to forge a solid reputation among those in the electrical trade. Kevin Marshall, an electrician for 14 years and a business agent who helps new contractors, says working with Goldman is "a joy."

"She's very organized, steadfast and ambitious," he said.

While she now has a comfortable office in her home, Goldman's first office when she incorporated in 2001 was far from luxurious-it was in her one-car garage.

"I left the kitchen door open and had a tiny space heater to keep it warm and a small air conditioning unit for summer." As a sign of the company's bare-bones beginning, she saved for three weeks to buy her first set of business cards.

The couple moved to their present house in 2004. Goldman, who has three children, now has a full-time nanny and can lock her office door from the inside "so I don't have to make a business call with a screaming baby nearby," she said.

Revenue more than quadrupled from 2002 to 2005, and Goldman hopes to grow the business by boosting the commercial side, which typically means longer jobs and an easier time scheduling people.

In addition to Goldman and her husband, a journeyman electrician, their union-shop company has three full-time employees. The company got a big boost when it was awarded a contract for electrical maintenance of Indianapolis Public Schools.

The Goldmans' parents influenced their decision to start their business. Bill's father was a union electrician, and Melanie's family owned a used-car dealership and restaurant.

Partin also says family influenced her career choice. "I'm the youngest of four girls, so I was a tomboy growing up," she said. "I shadowed my dad everywhere. He fixed everything-plumbing, carpentry. I was his helper, held the light, and brought him things."

After working in several different types of business, Partin did some research and

eventually decided to become an electrician. Her husband, Brian, a union laborer who does mostly roadwork, is off work from November to March, so he can help with care for their two children.

All was going well for Partin, but last fall she was diagnosed with cancer. To fight the disease she has called on the same perseverance that got her through her apprenticeship program. After undergoing treatment, she underwent a test recently that showed her clear of cancer.

Despite the bumps early on in their careers, both Goldman and Partin love what they're doing. And because the field is expected to grow faster than some other trades and can't easily be outsourced, opportunities will increase, according to a recent story in US News & World Report.

"This is a well-paid career and it's rewarding," Partin said. Goldman agrees. Although she works long hours-perhaps longer now than when the company started-Goldman loves running the business.

"My husband and I can make our own way in the world on our terms," she said. "We set our own goals, work to achieve them, and can feel the fire in our belly."


Melanie Goldman, above, runs Goldman Electrical Contracting, a company she coowns with her husband. Their revenue has quadrupled since 2002. Below, Carla Partin, a journeyman electrician, is currently working on site at Eli Lilly and Co. Partin has earned the respect of long-time male journeymen for her work ethic.
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