A Tradeswoman Melds Style and Glamour With Ironwork
Retaining women, not recruiting them, is the real issue, says Blue Coble
Bored of her decade-long career as a graphic designer, Blue Coble of Phoenix ditched her desk job and picked up a wrench instead. Now she helps inspire other women to pursue a career in construction.
“I was a manager, and making good money for what graphic designers can make,” Coble says. But at the time in her late 20s, she had “hit the ceiling of what I could do where I was. I wanted more.”
Inspired by seeing ironworkers assemble the iconic Hoover Dam Bridge spanning Arizona and Nevada, she began to think about performing the physically demanding work herself. After checking out Local Union 75 in Phoenix, Coble decided to give it a go. “I ended up really falling in love with it, and the union was really supportive, so it was easy to stay,” she says.
By providing education and employment, along with “amazing benefits,” the union took the stress out of her career switch, Coble adds.
The physical strain became the biggest hurdle of her new occupation. Carrying #11 rebar bundles in the 115-degree summertime heat in Arizona on her first reinforcing job “really took a toll on me,” she says. Regular visits to the gym, frequent hydration and a laser-like focus on jobsite safety keep her in prime condition for the work.
A self-described “girly-girl” who models, competes in pageants, wears dresses and high heels and “is obsessed with makeup,” Coble’s career about-face raised a few eyebrows among family and friends. “I definitely got a few phone calls from mom,” she says. But the quick-found success she’s found in her field has allayed any concerns.
Her male colleagues in the field, however, were initially less supportive. “I got called “the girl” a lot,” she says. But once she had the opportunity to prove herself, “everything changed” and other ironworkers began teaching her the tricks of the trade.
Now 33, Coble has worked on a variety of project types throughout the Southwest in her five years with the union, including a semi-conductor fabrication plant, water treatment facility, medical center and mining site. After earning the title of Apprentice of the Year at her local, Coble became a journeyman last year, and is now a trustee of her chapter.
She sees opportunities for advancement far beyond her previous career, from pursuing political office in her union to teaching to becoming a superintendent. She says being in the union also gives her the freedom to relocate anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
Her newfound role also provides a platform for Coble to inspire other women. Last month, she participated in the inaugural White House Summit on the United State of Women. She regularly attends the annual Women Build Nations conferences and is part of a committee to launch the Silver Linings Fund charity, intended to help women ironworkers who need assistance.
With females comprising less than 1% of ironworkers, Coble remains an anomaly. But she hopes to change that. “It’s not necessarily an issue of pulling women into the trades--it’s an issue of retaining them,” she says. “There are lots of girls who enter the construction field and who drop out very quickly for various reasons. We are trying to pinpoint what they need.”
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