It was 2003, and 23-year-old Beth Barton was desperate.
After escaping what she described as an “abusive relationship,” Barton and her then-infant son lived in a house she had bought in a rough section of St. Louis. But she didn’t have a job, couldn’t pay the mortgage and was too embarrassed to ask her family for help.
Barton, who had begun nursing school before becoming pregnant but did not particularly enjoy the occupation, did not have time to complete a degree. She needed work as soon as possible—but didn’t know where to begin.
“I knew I enjoyed fixing things, from cars to fences,” said Barton, who grew up on a hog farm in rural Marthasville, Missouri. Barton and her seven siblings drove tractors, baled hay and cared for horses. As for fixing things, Barton’s first solo job was the laundry chute. Once completed, Barton’s mom started referring to her as “Carpenter Beth.”
When she was 15, hooligans smashed the mailbox near the family home—twice. The second time Barton rebuilt the mailbox, she made it particularly rigid, determined that it would remain standing. “I put a sign on the mailbox which said: ‘I dare you to break it.’’ The mailbox remained upright for 15 years.
At that moment, when Barton was desperate to find work, she thought to herself, ‘Maybe I’ll be a carpenter.’ Barton opened the phonebook to contractors and spent three hours making calls. None were returned.
Finally, Jay Brennan of BSI Carpentry said to Barton, ‘Are you in the union?’ Barton didn’t even know what a union was. Brennan explained, also telling her what she needed to do to join.
Barton followed Brennan’s advice. She went to the carpenters’ union and immediately enrolled in the program, the only woman in a class of 200. Barton went through the union’s process that included buying tools and providing her with a letter to give to a contractor. The next step: finding a contractor who would hire her as an apprentice.
Challenges of carpentry
With a list of contractors that the union provided her, Barton seemed well on her way to getting a job and being a carpenter. Yet, the road ahead was far from easy.
“I had to convince people that I’d be a good hire,” Barton said. As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Barton ran into multiple challenges. She ticks them off: “Challenges of being overlooked, being underestimated, being underutilized and presuming I’m not strong enough, I don’t want to be there or I’m not capable of being there.”
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After a few weeks of looking for her first job, Barton eventually got hired, got her letter of intent and enrolled in the required safety course. All good.
Not quite. The employer kept pushing her off with one excuse after another. Barton checked in with her union employment counselor, and he counseled patience. As the wait dragged on, Barton worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA). Yet, the low pay left her and her son in need.
Finally, Barton’s employment counselor got her another job, emphasizing that she needed to prove herself. The job was scheduled to run for six weeks, but Barton completed it in just three and was commended for her work. Despite the success, getting the next job was also a struggle. Ultimately, Barton got on a heavy highway construction job that lasted a year.
Despite the difficulties of securing those early jobs, Barton was thankful when she did work. “My first day as a carpenter, I made $13.53 an hour, which was double what I was making as a CNA,” Barton said. “It was a blessing as I was able to pay for daycare and take care of my son.”
Securing a place in the field
Barton eventually got laid off from the heavy highway construction job. She had become friendly with the woman who ran the daycare center that her son attended. The two began talking, and Barton told her about being laid off. The woman told her about her husband, a superintendent at a residential builder and offered to tell him Barton’s story. Barton happily accepted the offer as she had been eager to get into residential construction.
One thing led to another, and Barton got the job. Barton remained at the job for three years; she hasn’t lacked work since. Another benefit of the job came when Barton met her husband there. The two have five children between them now and own a residential remodeling company.
During this period, Barton got involved with a nonprofit—Missouri Women in Trades (MOWIT). The goal of the nonprofit, established in 2008, is to promote and support women in the trades who wear tools in the St. Louis area. Barton served as president of the organization from 2008-2021 and remains on the board.
“I’m so engaged because the trades saved my life,” Barton said. “I know there are other women out there like me who could benefit from what this career brings and are capable.” MOWIT helps by giving these women the tools to succeed in the industry. During Barton’s time as president, MOWIT supported 300 or so women. Because of the challenges women face in the industry, a support group to help them cope and succeed is particularly helpful.
Encouraging women to enter the trades and grow requires the support of the entire leadership chain, according to Barton. She said of the leadership team at her current employer, McCarthy Building Companies: “They are one of the best in terms of support for women.”
She also raves about her current project at McCarthy: developing a 16-story inpatient hospital tower for BJC HealthCare’s Barnes-Jewish Hospital. BJC is one of the largest nonprofit health care organizations in the United States. Barton was the first carpenter on the job for McCarthy and is serving as foreman. BJC insists on a high percentage of women and minorities on the project. “People regularly come in and see me and other women making this project happen,” Barton said.
Barton loves her job and fulfilling construction career. “It’s exciting to me to be a woman out here breaking down barriers, and I feel a huge sense of pride from building something with my hands,” Barton said.
Barton hopes more women will join the team. “It’s a challenging profession where women have to be ready to prove themselves over and over,” she said.
And along the way, they can learn skills, build personal wealth and do something to be proud of. “It’s really hard, but really good,” Barton said.