Trades are not just a men's world

Local contractors employ women as electricians, carpenters

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

It's no secret that the local housing stock is high maintenance. With many homes in Oak Park pushing 100 years old or more, they are starting to show their age. While not every home requires major plastic surgery, most, if not all, need the occasional nip and tuck to keep meeting the needs of their owners. 

In Oak Park, there are countless local business from plumbers and electricians to contractors and handymen who work to help residents keep their homes from falling apart. 

And, some of these newer businesses are embracing new industry norms and defying gender stereotypes when it comes to their workforces, and these business owners say they and their clients are the better for it.

Electricity updates

Many of the area's older homes are holding on to outdated electrical wiring, dating back more than 100 years and Oak Park-based Kinetic Energy's Ted Stroup and his team of electricians, which includes two female electricians, are working to change that, one house at a time.

Kinetic is called in frequently when people are buying or selling older homes. New owners often want more options for lighting and more outlets than older homes typically have. Office manager Traci Arnesen, who like Stroup is an Oak Park resident, says that these things make a big difference in an older home. 

"I'm an Oak Parker as well and live in an old house,"Arnesen said. "It's nice to know that we can do new lighting and fun to be able to tell people we can do this in their old homes because we've done it in ours."

Many owners of older homes are concerned about the safety of original cloth wiring. According to Stroup the concerns are real. 

"Over time it will crack and dry rot, and you're going to eventually have problems with it," Stroup said.

Stroup's small business employs two female electricians in a field often dominated by men. Brianna Starks and Tara Schaafsma are in the regular rotation of electricians for the company. 

Schaafsma has been with the company for four years. After earning her degree in anthropology from the University of Iowa, Schaafsma wasn't sure what career path to follow. Her mother suggested that she try doing something with her hands, like carpentry or electricity.

"I like problem solving, like working with my hands and like working with tools, so I thought I'd try it," Schaafsma said.

She worked for eight years in commercial electricity in Iowa City and spent a year in New York City as an electrician on the subway system. After taking some time off with her children when she moved to Oak Park, she was ready to return to work and found Kinetic was the perfect hometown job for her. 

 "You never know quite what you're going to get into," Schaafsma said. "Sometimes, older homes are just dustier and dirtier inside the walls than new, or sometimes, you run into old knob and tube or cloth wire. A lot of the time, everything's been retrofit."

Arnesen said that having employees like Schaafsma and Starks on the job has been great for public relations. 

"One customer asked to take a photo of Tara on the job, because her daughter was a young adult and she wanted to show her that women can work in a technical field," Arnesen said.

Power tools and more

When native Oak Parker Andy Sjostrom decided to start his own with a handyman business in 2007, he had an architecture degree and 15 years of experience in the construction field under his belt, and was ready to work for himself. 

He and his wife Kate partnered to form The Good Handyman, and Andy credits Kate vision with the success of the company.

He said there is no typical day for someone in his line of work, but that older Oak Park homes present plenty of opportunities for work. 

"As handymen and remodelers, we can be looking at lot of different situations during the day," Andy said. "Seasonally, we do a lot of replacement of doors and weather stripping. These beautiful old doors in Oak Park also leak like sieves. They look pretty, but in the winter, they are the bane of people's existence."

Beyond adding comfort to area home's with weather-battling strategies. Sjostrom and his carpenters also work on a lot of organization systems for clients and bigger projects like bathroom and kitchen remodels. 

Along with partnering with his wife to run the business, Sjostrom has employed a female carpenter, Katie Kopecky, for the last three years. For him, gender wasn't even something to think about. 

"While I think it's a rarity to have a woman leading a construction company that also has a lead carpenter as a woman, to me as a business owner, it's irrelevant," Sjostrom said. "Each excels at her job, not because she is a woman, but because she is good at what she does."

Sjostrom said that some clients are still taken aback that he has a female lead carpenter, but that he lets Kopecky's skills speak for themselves. 

"She has a willingness to learn and commitment to her craft that make her great at what we do and critical to the business on a day-to-day basis," he said.

For Kopecky, working in carpentry was an unexpected career path. She worked on the stage crew while attending Oak Park and River Forest High School and enjoyed the carpentry required by the job, but it wasn't until after college that she entertained the idea of turning it into a career. A neighbor who had used The Good Handyman services and knew Sjostrom was hiring recommended Kopecky look into the job, and she was hired as an apprentice.

Whether they are working on small tasks or larger remodeling projects, Kopecky says, "One of the nice things is that every day is something different. We just finished gutting a bathroom, we do punch-lists and take on the small things you can live with but that might be super annoying."

Not only does Kopecky work on carpentry and general handyman jobs, but last year, she and Sjostrom also worked to inspire the next generation of females. They ran a mother-daughter shop class to introduce power tools and building projects to elementary school girls.

Kopecky said that Sjostrom was inspired by his own daughter to teach the course, and it was something that resonated with her as well. 

"I was super on board," Kopecky said. "The problem with women not being in the trades starts because when they were young, they aren't even introduced to these tools and practices. Not everything we do is really hard, but people just need to be taught how to do it."

Reader Comments

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Dave Mercer  

Posted: November 10th, 2017 3:08 PM

Nice story, well-reported. Strictly by coincidence, within the last year or so both Katie and Tara have done work on our house, with excellent results - we would not hesitate to have them back. Good for Ted and Andy, too, for providing these opportunities.

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