As anyone in the industry can tell you, there’s a real shortage of skilled labor in drywall, and in the trades generally. What most people don’t talk about, though, is how infrequently we see women in drywall — and what an untapped resource they represent for this industry.
The fact is, construction is not an industry that has historically been very friendly or welcoming to women, and if we want to get more women involved (and we should want that), we need to make it a place that appreciates, respects and welcomes them. One of the best ways to do that is look to the women who are already working the job and use them as role models to encourage the next generation of young women to get into the trades.
In this series, we're shining a spotlight on their stories.
Kristi Slade goes from baking to taping
Kristi Slade is a maker. Above all, she likes to work with her hands to create beautiful things — whether that’s whipping up a delicious dish, restoring a piece of antique furniture or, yes, finishing drywall.
It was that love for making stuff from scratch that led her to taping drywall as a teenager, and that also drew her to cooking. She pursued these passions — both as a hobby and professionally — for many years. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that a chance encounter with a former member of a tapers’ union led her to devoting her attention full-time to finishing, and to joining a union for herself.
“I've been taping for probably 16-plus years,” Kristi told us in a conversation over Zoom from her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. “I started taping when I was younger, and then I started cooking. I love cooking so much. I was restoring furniture — I was all over the place — but I kept going back to the trades. Eventually, I just knew that's what I wanted to do. A few years ago, I was with my dad at his friend's cottage and I saw a plaque on the wall. He was a taper in the union, and he gave me a number for this union rep. I called him and he's like, ‘Wow, you've got a lot of experience.’ He helped me out getting in.”
Working in Finishing Trades unions: ‘It’s the way to go’
Kristi speaks quite highly of the union she’s been a member of for three years now, the International Union of Painters and Associated Trades (IUPAT). The union, which represents more than 160,000 active and retired tradespeople across the U.S. and Canada as one of the most active unions in the labor movement, allows Kristi and women like her the ability to live just about anywhere they want and remain card-carrying members.
For people looking to enter the trades, a union like IUPAT offers apprenticeships to get started — but Kristi’s many years of residential experience helped springboard her into commercial union work at an accelerated pace.
“When I was younger, I would get nervous going on the jobsite sometimes,” says Kristi. “I was working more residential, now I do commercial. It was nerve-wracking. The whole scenery was different. The non-union, it was different. It was a different vibe. When I first joined the union, it was a lot to take in, but it was very exciting — I just had to get over my fear of heights because I had to drive the scissor lift.
“The guys are awesome. The union reps are awesome. They're all about getting women in the trades. My union rep, honestly, I feel like he's like a father figure to me. He's helped me so much … I love the commercial [work] in the union. It's the way to go. The pension, the benefits, you make good money, you're never out of work. It's a solid career choice for me and for many women.”
While there are always going to be hurdles to clear, for Kristi and many other finishers, having a helping hand in the form of a union rep can be a game-changer. These days, Kristi has made a steady living in the trades, working for two years now with a company called Alles Drywall, which Kristi says treats her “like family.”
Women in Drywall: ‘The best job I’ve ever had’
To inspire more women to enter the finishing trades, Kristi tells us that it could be a matter of showing more women, in a hands-on environment, that it’s a real, clear-cut possibility. She describes how, when talking to her girlfriends about taping, the thought of going onto a jobsite professionally can sound overwhelming — scary, even. But actually taking her girlfriends onto some of her residential jobsites can make all the difference. They’re able see firsthand that they’re very much up to the task.
Here, again, when the conversation turns to the issue of bringing more women into the trades, Kristi stumps for going the union route.
“It's good to have that union rep that you can call to talk to,” Kristi tells us. “Sometimes they can be helpful with stuff. Also, the job sites that I'm on, they do not put up with harassment at all. It's zero tolerance. Guys, they don't bother you … If you just show up and you keep showing up every day, and you work hard and you be helpful, the guys will accept you.
“I would say make the call. Don't be scared. The guys are going to love you. They love having me around. I feel like we just add something different to the job site and mix it up. I'm a clean person. I keep the jobsite clean and organized. They love it. They never had to scrape the floors after me because I keep it tidy. I prep everything really well. I would say make the move. The union will help you.”
Even though Kristi has committed herself to the life of a tradesperson, that’s not to say she’s given up on all her other passions. In addition to taping, she plans on starting a vegetable garden to make homemade sauces and other delicacies from scratch. A quick scroll through Kristi’s Instagram page shows off her diverse array of interests, mixing shots from jobsites with photos of food she’s prepared — and even, in one instance, workplace-safety-themed cookies she baked special for her fellow crewmembers.
When we asked Kristi what advice she had for women who may be “all over the place” like she was just a few years ago, she couldn’t have been more direct.
“Join the trades — it's so much fun,” she says. “This is the best job I've ever had. You can make good money, support yourself. You're always building stuff, you're always somewhere new. It's an exciting job. I always tell young people to join the trades. This is the best job I've ever had. I love it.”