When Mittie Cannon first set foot on a construction site in 1991, the initial thing she noticed wasn't the heavy equipment, the tools or the concrete and rebar.
Instead, she instantly saw what was missing.
As a recent college graduate contemplating medical school, Cannon had taken a job at a construction site drug testing facility in Minnesota. From her office trailer, she watched dozens of skilled workers pass through the jobsite gates every day.
"It was an eye-opening experience," she said. "I saw nothing but men — mainly white men — and didn't see any women.”
The lack of diversity didn't stop her from wanting to know more about the benefits of a career in the trades, and not long after that she decided to make construction — not healthcare — her career. She worked as a journeyman electrician with her electrical engineer husband for several years before moving into workforce development and training for firms like BE&K Building Group and Robins & Morton.
"There's no such thing as a man's world."
Founder, Power Up
As a young electrician, she sometimes encountered men who were uncomfortable working with her and she dealt with a typical amount of hazing — like being sent to another room for tools that didn’t exist — but Cannon never felt discriminated against. She enjoyed working in construction and the financial stability it brought and wondered why other women didn't join her.
"I saw that I made $51,000 my first year, and back then I thought that was a lot of money and I felt like, OK, if I can do this, anybody can do this," she said. "I wanted to let other women know that there's this opportunity out there where you can make high wages, meet other people, do interesting work and travel."
Her passion to let other women know about opportunities in construction led her to found a nonprofit devoted to workforce development, Power Up, in 2015.
With programs throughout the southeastern U.S. and starting in Guam next year, Power Up events have introduced more than 1,000 girls from pre-K to 12th grade to the skilled trades.
The program's summer camps and in-school workshops focus on topics ranging from coding and electronics to safety, carpentry, diversity and inclusion financial literacy and even heavy equipment operation.
One of Power Up's programs is based on an idea from Cannon's days on construction sites, when she would see many employees report for work together as part of a family unit — fathers and sons or uncles and nephews.
Expanding on that idea for women, Power Up: It's a Mother-Daughter Thing! invites girls and their mothers to learn about jobs in the skilled trades together. The Birmingham, Alabama, program has had more than 800 attendees and has convinced women from both generations to consider careers in the trades.
Power Up is funded by private donations and the Associated Builders and Contractors and is offered in five U.S. cities: Birmingham and Fairfield, Alabama; Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Carrollton, Georgia; and Hamilton, Mississippi.
A woman's world
Cannon is focused on planning a five-year anniversary celebration for It's a Mother/Daughter Thing! and already has several professional athletes scheduled to appear at the fundraising dinner. Her commitment over the years has helped the program flourish, said Jay Reed, president and CEO of ABC of Alabama, a Power Up partner since its inception.
"Ask anyone in our sector who has worked with Mittie and they will tell you that her passion and enthusiasm for our industry and workforce development is real," he said. "Workforce development isn't just a job or career for Mittie, it's her way of life."
Cannon, who has appeared on national cable news channels to talk about the issue, is also an outspoken advocate for the ways that women can help alleviate the skilled labor shortage. Statistics show that only about 3.4% of skilled trade workers are women.
Although the numbers say otherwise, Cannon bristles at the idea that construction is a man's world. "It just happens that we're underrepresented," she said. "We’ve got to change our language and how we communicate because if we continue to say it's a man's world, we fall into that trap and believe it."
Instead, she tells young women that they can succeed in construction and she plans to expand her programs to get the message out to girls in more areas of the country.
"I want them to know that it's about the choices they make and how they conduct themselves," she said "There's no such thing as a man's world."