Mt. Airy's 'Rosie the Riveter' a construction pioneer

by Sue Ann Rybak
Posted 3/11/21

Mt. Airy resident Ty'Aja Jones-Brown and Norristown resident Maya Crockem are just two of many women changing the perception that women can’t do construction work.

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Mt. Airy's 'Rosie the Riveter' a construction pioneer

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Mt. Airy resident Ty'Aja Jones-Brown and Norristown resident Maya Crockem are just two of many women changing the perception that women can’t do construction work. They are the modern-day Rosies the Riveter who are proving that women can not only perform the same job as men but can also excel at it.

Having started on March 6 and continuing to March 13, the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWC) is celebrating Women in Construction week; it’s also the week Ty'Aja Jones-Brown is graduating from Orleans Technical College’s Building Maintenance program. Orleans is a private technical school operated by JEVS Human Services at 2770 Red Lion Road in Northeast Philadelphia. “My mom told me when I was a little girl I could do anything a man could do,” she said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up nine to 10 percent of the construction industry. However, according to NAWC, that figure includes administrative and executive positions. They say the number of women in actual hands-on construction and maintenance positions is closer to just one percent, but that number is growing, thanks to schools like Orleans.

After graduating from George Washington High School in 2018, Jones-Brown enrolled in Community College of Philadelphia but dropped out after a few months. “I needed something away from virtual learning,” she said. “I needed hands-on learning. I started thinking, ‘What do I really want to do?’”

As a teenager, she enjoyed watching “Property Brothers,” an HGTV series about two brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott, who bought fixer-uppers and transformed them into dream homes. “I like the fact that you can take something that is broke and make it look fantastic,” said the Mt. Airy resident. “As a kid, I loved to assemble furniture.”

Jones-Brown decided to enroll in Orleans Technical College’s Building Maintenance program because she has always been interested in real estate. “I chose Building Maintenance because you learn how to fix everything,” she said. “In the future, I can sell a house as a realtor and then also do the maintenance.” 

Debbie Bello, director of admissions at Orleans Technical College, said the school offers five Building and Construction programs: Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Heating; Building Maintenance; Carpentry; Plumbing and Heating, and Residential and Commercial Electricity. Women who attend the school range in age from 18 to early 60s.

“People need to think outside of the box,” Bello said. “I had a woman come in at the age of 18, who graduated from Central High School, which is known for 100 percent of its students being college-bound, but she had a goal to learn how to build theatre sets, which she learned in the carpentry class.”

Another woman in her early 60s enrolled in the electrical program. “She got a job working for SEPTA,” Bello said. “She works for the railroad and is the first female lineman there … It’s hands-on. There are no fluff classes. The program is based upon what employers are specifically looking for.”

At least 70 percent of Orleans students must obtain work placement immediately upon graduation in order for the school to maintain its accreditation. Bello said students know that after completing the full-time six-month program or 13-month part-time program, the career service department will help find them a job.

“You have to have a passion for doing this kind of work,” Bello said. “It’s problem-solving, being creative, demolishing things, diagnosing all of it. Your whole body is involved in a trade. It’s very laborious, so you have to love it.”

The school is working to change the unconscious bias society has about women in the Building and Construction Industry by connecting its students to women like Kayleen McCabe, general contractor, TV host, trades advocate and brand ambassador.

Jones-Brown said she doesn’t want other women to hesitate to enroll in a school whose student body is predominantly male. She said her classmates, including Maya Crockem, who is also in the Building Maintenance program, encourage her to succeed.

“If it’s something you are interested in, why not enroll? When you have these skills, there is always opportunity. I love Orleans. The entire staff goes above and beyond to do more than they need. You never have to worry about if they care because you know they do.”

For more information: orleanstech.edu or 215-728-4700.

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