“Women can do it all”, says Deb Cronin, a former beauty queen and pro athlete, lifelong artist, mother of two and now union carpenter in Massachusetts, “but unless you have family members who do construction, there is no one there to pull you in”.
So how did she, at fifty years old, make the leap from her maintenance job to working her dream job rehabilitating Chelsea’s iconic Tobin Bridge over The Majestic River? Was it fate? Coincidentally, she had been photographing Tobin Bridge for years and even held art galleries at a local pub featuring her work. “My life has always been like that. I’ll dream something or envision it and it will come true”, she says. And the truth is, although kismet, there’s so much initiative that goes into finding your fate; especially when, like many of Deb’s accomplishments, it includes defying the odds to smash gender stereotypes. “You have to just get in there and do it. I told myself I was going to be a fireman or a carpenter by my fiftieth birthday”, Deb recalls.
And so, after finding a flyer about a job fair for women to work on the build of a large casino nearby, she decided this was her opportunity to find out more about how to make her dreams a reality. She showed up to the job fair and as expected, most of the women there were half her age but nonetheless, she ended up signing up for carpentry after being approached by a representative from a local union. Her first job landed her on-site with a number of other women which was encouraging for her to see. However, the encouragement was a bit short-lived after working with a foreman who had Deb doubting that she made the right decision. “I’ve always been one to stand up to people like that, but I kept my mouth shut because I wanted to do this and I didn’t know what I was allowed to say or do”, she says of her experience.
Fortunately, she found solidarity amongst the women on site. “The girls find a way to talk to each other and pump each other up if they need it...It’s an unspoken thing. We just look across to each other and just nod and you know I've got your back, regardless.” Much of this comradery is due to the positive influence of Sisters of the Brotherhood, a group within her Union that focuses on supporting female union members. So, with support from her fellow union sisters, Deb took her experience with one bad foreman in stride and moved on to work on the Tobin Bridge where she has found more supportive men on-site than not.
She began working for the world-leading project development and construction group, Skanska, on their 169 million dollar rehabilitation of Chelsea’s Tobin Bridge in February of 2019. Despite the labor-intensive work required, she found herself at home amongst the enormous concrete forms and towering 250-foot columns. Additionally, the seasoned tradesmen working alongside her have been surprisingly supportive of her occasional recommendations to approach tasks a bit differently. “I think women are ready to prove themselves and we end up being more analytical in how we do stuff.” She recalls the second day on the job, after pointing out a different way to tackle a task, “the whole crew turned around and looked at me. And then one of the seniors there said, ‘How many days you been here?’ But then the other guys chimed in and said, ‘You know, she’s got a point.’ ...So yeah, every once in awhile, I know there is an easier way to do things and they’ll give me crap about it but then they do it my way”, Deb laughs. And although she enjoys her welcomed opinions on site, she emphasizes her admiration for these men who have been doing this work for years. “They have taught me so much and I am so grateful for them.” It’s knowledge that Deb is excited to carry with her beyond her years at the bridge.
Acknowledging that she won’t be able to tug around a 20-40 lb. toolbelt for a significant number of years ahead, she is looking forward to applying what she has learned to some future carpentry goals. An artist and lover of all woodworking, she hopes to one day outfit a cabin in the mountains for her own furniture and fine woodworking. But in the meantime, she is eager to share her newfound love of construction with every woman she meets. Reminiscing of an encounter with women at her bank, she recalls their intrigue as she deposits a sizable check all dirtied up from work. “I gave them a bunch of websites and resources to look into because I want them to know they have options no matter their age...you don't have to be super strong, you just have to have a desire to work and learn.” Deb echoes a common consensus among tradeswomen who find themselves landing careers in construction as a second or third profession, “One hundred percent, if I had known this was an option for a woman back in high school, I would have pursued carpentry”. She fondly remembers shop class was her favorite subject and still uses and cherishes a nightstand that she made for her mom back then. “It was just never presented as a normal job for women to do...I just want to push women forward and help them jump over all the [unnecessary stuff] so that they can just do it.”