Our Kind of People

How a program in East Biloxi helps women break barriers in a male-dominated workforce

Ten years ago, a program started in East Biloxi that has transformed the lives of hundreds of women and changed the landscape of male-dominated industries on the Mississippi Coast.

Moore Community House Women in Construction is a job training program that prepares women for careers in the manufacturing and construction industry.

The first four women in 2008. Last year, 400 graduated.

Their salaries start out at three times more than they’d make as unskilled workers, said Program Director Julie Kuklinski

She helped start the program after she came down to help rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina. She honed in on East Biloxi, area that locals lovingly refer to as The Point because it juts out into Biloxi Bay.

It was completely devastated, and as she helped families get on their feet, Kuklinski said she realized something powerful — the heads of some families were women, and they were part of the glue that held the tattered area together.

Kuklinski said she’s made it her mission to carry on the tradition of honoring the strength and resilience of women in the Deep South.

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Women in Construction is changing the lives of women on the Coast in more than one way. Through a grant from the Department of Labor, the Strengthening Working Families Initiative, the organization is providing free child care for a year for its graduates. "If a woman does not get child care she can not as easily participate in the workforce, especially if she doesn't have support from her family," said Julie Kuklinski, program director for Women in Construction. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

If accepted, women can join the program at no cost. Plus they are given free child care for their eight-week course and for one year after graduation.

“If a woman does not have child care, she can not easily participate in the workforce, especially if she doesn’t have support from her family,” Kuklinski said.

Women In Construction is able to offer the child care thanks to a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the Department of Labor Strengthening Working Families Initiative. The program works with the Mississippi Department of Human Services to help students find a child care provider.

And it’s not an easy road. They are in class full-time for eight weeks.

“It’s a challenge. But women step up to the challenge,” Kuklinski said.

“They’re going against the grain and paving the way for other women.”

At first, male-dominated industries weren’t interested in hiring the graduates for manual labor jobs.

“There was a lot of people who were like, “We’re not hiring, we don’t need employees, women aren’t strong enough,’ ” Kuklinski said.

“Slowly but surely, we’ve been able to get more women in there. One woman at a time ... some start with one, and now some have 10 or 20 women.”

Ingalls Shipyard’s apprenticeship program is 20 percent female, Kuklinski said. The graduates from Women in Construction are the ones that are changing the makeup of the workforce.

“They’re showing men that they can do it. They’re also setting examples for other women,” she said.

In honor of the 10-year anniversary, here are stories of women who graduated from Women in Construction.

Ethel Williams

Ethel Williams, a 39-year-old mother of five, was living in Jackson and never thought she’d move to the Coast to pursue a career in construction.

She was just coming out of a long-term relationship in February 2017, and she was worried about how to provide for her children.

“I was all the way broke. I didn’t have a penny to my name,” she said.

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Women in Construction is changing the lives of women on the Coast in more than one way. Through a grant from the Department of Labor, the Strengthening Working Families Initiative, the organization is providing free child care for a year for its graduates. Ethel Williams moved from Jackson specifically Women in Construction because of the challenges she faced finding child care for her children while also participating in the workforce. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

Williams was a line cook who usually found work at fast-food restaurants. She felt she had to get out of the rut she was in making low wages and unable to afford child care from a licensed provider. She had to rely on her mother to watch three of her young children.

If her mother couldn’t watch her children, Williams wasn’t be able to work.

“Some people don’t want to watch your kids, and you can’t go to work and be productive because you worry about where your kids are and who they’re with,” she said.

Williams found an ad for the Women in Construction Program on Craig’s List and drove down to Biloxi for the information session. She was very interested in the free child care.

After participating in a volunteer day and going through an assessment, Williams was offered a spot. She risked it all and moved down to Biloxi.

“I was scared. I didn’t have any family here. I didn’t know anybody,” Williams said.

The first two nights in Biloxi, Williams slept in her car. Her children stayed with her mother in Jackson until she could get on her feet. But when Jackson public schools shut down in a water crisis, Ethel had to bring her kids to the Coast.

But by then, Women in Construction workers had already helped Williams find resources. Shegot free health care for one year through Coastal Family Health System, furniture for her apartment from Back Bay mission, and help with a rent deposit from the Jackson County Civic Action Committee.

When she was in Jackson, to even qualify for state child care, she would have to provide two check stubs and a co-pay. With the help of Women in Construction, all she had to do was pick a child care provider.

“It felt like I was on walking on faith,” Williams said.

The first thing she learned in class was how to build a frame, which inspired her.

“I’m learning you have to have a solid foundation to build up. That’s how I organized my life and wrote down everything I needed to get in place and be successful.”

Ethel graduated in April 2017. She served as a graduate assistant for two terms and also became a certified structural welder. She was recently hired as a program trainer at Women in Construction, where she helps women in the same position she was in seven moths ago.

“People can relate to my story, whether it’s being a black woman, being a single mother, being homeless ... They pick up on the vibe of it and they want to be successful. They want to grow and get to the place where I’m at.”

Sabrina Graley

Sabrina Graley, 32, was a student in the second graduating class in 2008.

Graley worked with a construction company in Biloxi for several years after she graduated.

When she was a student, the workspace at school was very small, and much of their hands-on training came from rebuilding homes in East Biloxi.

She said seeing a home she helped build is something she’ll have for the rest of her life.

“It’s a standing reminder you were part of something bigger,” said Graley, who is taking a night course for OSHA certification at Women in Construction.

Graley said the program taught her how to deal with discrimination in the workforce.

“It’s hard. It’s not fair. It’s very one-sided,” Graley said.

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Women in Construction is changing the lives of women on the Coast in more than one way. It is celebrating the ten year anniversary of graduating its first class. Elizabeth Rappaport

When she was working in construction, she was passed up for a promotion. It was given to a man who had been with the company for less time than Graley. When she was injured on the job, her boss assigned her to desk work and refused to let her back in the field, even when she was better. Graley said she’d seen men fall from ladders and be back at work the next day.

“I felt like I had gotten demoted,” she said.

The discrimination Graley felt in her heart was something she expected, she said. The program helped prepare her.

Graley left that company and is not working in the industry, but she is getting her OSHA certification because she’s ready to try again. She and a friend are going to start a construction company and split jobs 50-50.

Graley misses getting her hands dirty.

Graley said Women in Construction is “everything” to her. They’ve opened their doors to her when she needed it most.

Tannasia Butler

Tannasia Butler, 29, was a stay-at-home mom raising two sons under the age of 2 when her world changed.

She and her husband decided to separate.

Butler, who was a stay-at-home mom, had just given birth to her second child. Her oldest was 1.

“When he left, it was like everything was snatched from under me, and I didn’t know what to do next,” Butler said.

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Women in Construction is changing the lives of women on the Coast in more than one way. Through a grant from the Department of Labor, the Strengthening Working Families Initiative, the organization is providing free child care for a year for its graduates. Tannasia Butler is a graduate from the program that was drawn to it because of the challenge of finding child care when entering the workforce. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com

She heard about Women in Construction from her apartment complex and went to an information session. She was immediately interested.

“I grew up with two men who forced down my throat that I could do anything a man can do, regardless of how many people tell you that you can’t,” Butler said.

She was worried, though, because she didn’t have any family or a support system in Biloxi. Her husband was truck driver, and they moved around a lot. They came to Biloxi by way of Houston. Their home flooded in 2016, and Butler and her family were living in her mother’s basement in a Chicago suburb when they learned there was disaster housing for them in Biloxi.

Her husband was gone, and Butler didn’t want to go back north.

“Chicago’s not an ideal place to raise a black man right now,” Butler said, and people are moving out of the city because of violence.

Butler was calling around to get quotes on child care and realized it was expensive. She didn’t know if she could afford it. Then she heard about the free child care at Women in Construction.

“This is divine. This is meant to be. I’m supposed to be here,” Butler said.

During her time in the program, Butler said her instructors and peers turned into family. They helped advocate for her and her family. When her apartment had mold and it was causing breathing troubles for her newborn, instructors helped her move into a new place.

“They helped me in every way possible,” she said.

Since graduating, Butler has received several job offers, but she hasn’t found the right fit for her family. Most of them want her to travel, and she can’t do that right now.

What she values most about her training is the new way she can be a role model for her boys.

“I feel like it’s good to show my boys so they can look at women always as equals,” she said. “They know mom can do the same thing dad can do. The example I’m setting for my sons is the most important thing for me. I feel like I’m giving them the right image to look up to. A strong image. An image of enduring and perseverance — someone they can be proud of at the end of the day.”

Women in Construction is accepting students for its next class. Women who are interested can sign up for an information session.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_

About the series

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.