Women joining the ranks of ironworkers

May 21, 2012 7:19:06 PM PDT
The Golden Gate Bridge's 75th anniversary is coming up this weekend. A lot has changed since it was built, but ironworkers are still key in bridge construction. The bridge workers of tomorrow are being trained in the Bay Area. Some of them are women.

Ironworkers consider themselves the Marines of the building trades. If that's so, then the Field Ironworkers Apprenticeship and Training Center in Benicia, also known as the University of Iron, is boot camp.

"Basket weaving and pottery's a lot of fun, but that's not what we do at the training center," apprenticeship director Dick Zampa, Jr. said. "It's welding, rigging, reinforcing, post-tensioning, architectural work and everything related to the ironworker trade."

Zampa is the union's apprenticeship director for California, Nevada and Arizona.

"My passion is for training people how to make a living," he said.

Zampa is the grandson of famed ironworker Al Zampa who survived a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge while working on it. The westbound bridge over the Carquinez Strait is named after him.

Al's great-grandsons Angelo and Johnny are both apprentices, but unlike great-grandpa they will have women on the job alongside them.

Renee Aguilar is one of 20 women recruited by Zampa for the Gladiator Women Program -- free pre-apprenticeship training. The women provide their own tools and get everything else for free. Instructors donate their time.

Aguilar used to work on the business side of a union office -- her dad and both brothers told her she couldn't do the ironworkers' job.

"It's too physically demanding, you're not going to be able to do it," Aguilar said. "Watch me. Watch me."

Teresa Regalado welcomes the challenge.

"I don't really like to sit for too long, I'm more of a hands-on person, also competitive, anything a guy can do Iwant to be able to do as well," she said. "So I don't want to be seen as the inferior anything of anything."

When great-grandpa Al worked on the Golden Gate Bridge, there was no training center. He learned it all on the job.

Today, after 200-plus hours in the pre-apprentice program, the women go onto the four-year apprenticeship, which is 700 hours at the training center and 5,000 hours on the job, before earning journeyman status. Al would probably be very impressed.

There is a daylong celebration planned for the bridge's birthday on Sunday.


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