By Marni McEntee | Photographed By Jen Dederich
Sandy Thistle had what it took to be in construction. She was a natural at math and understood mechanics, so she could easily do the figuring it took to make a project plumb. She was strong, having been a gymnast and an aerial dancer—meaning she wasn’t afraid of heights.
Which was lucky for her.
Because her first job as a commercial carpenter in 1989 was on a bridge across the Wisconsin River that had been demolished and stripped down to the beams. Five beams, 8 feet apart, stretching from bank to bank.
“My job that very first day, while harnessed into a safety line, was to take these things called walers—each one was a couple of 2-by-4s, shaped like an ‘I’—and I had to carry one in each arm, walk on the beam, set one down on the beam and take the other one and swing it over so that the other end hooked on to that other beam 8 feet over.” Over and over. The walers weighed 15 to 20 pounds. “It was crazy,” she says.
For the first few weeks of that job, she’d go home so tired she’d often just eat and go to bed, too exhausted to shower. “I was just dirty,” she says.
As crazy as all that was, though, she loved it and was on a commercial crew for a dozen years before making the move to Madison College, where she co-directs the school’s Construction and Remodeling Program.
“It makes me really happy. I like climbing up things, I like wailing on things, I like crawling around,” she says. Along with the physicality, she says, “It’s the pride in being able to see the result. The math of it. The mechanical part of it. I’m not this brilliant intellect but I get how things work and how they fit together, so that’s satisfying.”
As the daughter of a Navy man, new places abroad and new experiences had always been part of Thistle’s life. “I knew what it was like to be different,” she says. When her dad retired in 1979, they moved from Maryland to Sauk Prairie, where Thistle spent the last two years of high school. Young women were steered toward nursing and teaching at the time. So, she enrolled in pre-nursing courses at the UW, but they didn’t fit her. She cast about and, on the suggestion of girlfriends apprenticing in the field, gave a carpentry a try.
It made sense, says Jen Voichick, one of the former apprentices, because Thistle had the constitution for it: physical strength, a thick skin and the ability to work out in the elements, which scares away many workers—men and women.
“She has a really comfortable feeling with who she is out in the field,” says Voichick, who took Thistle to get her first tool belt those many years ago. And, today, “she’s really interested in promoting the [skilled] trades, for all people, having it be accessible.”
Just six of the 50 Madison College students in the Construction and Remodeling program are women, so both Thistle and Voichick are reaching out now to elementary age girls in hopes of adding a career choice to their quivers. Nationwide, just 1.7 percent of all carpenters, residential and commercial, are women, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2014.
“We work really hard at recruitment,” Thistle says. “The bigger problem is not even that there aren’t young people who want to do this work, it’s that we, as a culture, dismiss that work. There’s no prestige in it. Parents want their kids to be a lawyer, they don’t want them to do physical labor.” Bias—Thistle has faced that in the field, too, but never as badly as she expected.
“It was interesting because I went into the first project [on the bridge] thinking, ‘oh, the physical part will be easy, and the guys are going to be assholes.’ And that first experience, for the most part, was the opposite. The work killed me. And overall the guys were really kind.”
There were exceptions, she says—over-attentive and critical supervisors, getting fired while pregnant, the guy who stole her tools. But she endured in a trade she loved. She was on the crew that built Monona Terrace, and innumerable other commercial buildings in the Madison area.
“That’s one of the things I get out of this work—that pride. Because it’s unique. Like the Monona Terrace—there’s a thing that you worked on that will be there until long after you die. I can go through town and say, ‘I worked on that. I worked on that.’ It’s so cool.”