In the beginning, Cheryl Wirkus felt as though she had to prove herself, to feel like she had to fight for respect at work. But the more she worked with her male counterparts at work, the more they were able to see that she worked every bit as hard as they did, got just as dirty, and smelled just as bad at the end of a long, hard day. After being laid off from CASE Manufacturing in 1999 where Cheryl worked as a welder on the tractor cab line, a construction crew suggested that she consider getting into ironworking and that she’d be a great fit. Signing up for an apprenticeship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cheryl was ready for an exciting road ahead of her in an entirely new field that she was confident she could dowell.
“I love being outdoors and never having to be at the same job for a long period of time,” the Wisconsin native said. “Being able to go from one new jobsite to another I get to establish a wonderful network of new friends all the time. Working alongside more experienced ironworkers who have a lot of knowledge and have been around long enough to know the best and safest way to get the job done, I’ve been fortunate to have so many of them help me over the years, too.”
Enjoying the latitude that such a non-traditional job has to offer her, Cheryl works as an ironworker for Local 8 out of Milwaukee. Although each job varies, she typically helps to erect columns, beams, girders, trusses, and joists on any given day, connecting them together by either bolting them up or welding them together.
She also works closely with the crane operators by rigging up the iron and using the proper crane signals for the crane operator to hoist the iron into place. A Safety Trained Supervisor for Construction (STSC) since 2015,Cheryl will soon help train fellow ironworkers at her local’s hall to become STSC’s.
Throughout her career, some of Cheryl’s most notable works have included the Milwaukee Art Museum for the Burke Brise Soleil, a moveable sunscreen with a 217-foot wingspan that folds and unfolds, the Wisconsin Center, one of the world’s most architecturally exhilarating and technologically robust convention facilities in downtown Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Brewer Stadium, which has a seven-panel retractable roof that opens and closes, three power plants, and she is currently working on a 32-story high rise in Milwaukee. She also worked on a new nuclear construction power plant in South Carolina, a job that lasted four-and-a-halfyears.
Cheryl is a member of Women in Nuclear where sheserved on their committee as a new Craft Member Coordinator for three years while living in South Carolina. She has also participated in several Women in Hard Hats expos for the Milwaukee area to help recruit women inironworking.
An avid volunteer, she has lent a hand with the American Cancer Society and, together with her husband Mike, spent the last four years doing volunteer work with the Freedom and Hope Foundation in South Carolina. With two associate’s degrees under her belt, Cheryl is now working on her Bachelor’s in Occupational Safety and Health. Mike has been her rock in everything she does, he is proud that she is an ironworker, and he isn’t bashful to brag about it. They share four children between the two of them, Ben, Emily, Jeremy, and Eric, and four grandchildren, Nadia, 9, Lily, 2, Hunter, 2, and Preston, who is under a year old.
Q: Do you have to work way up high in your job?
A: Have to? No, I want to! There are many different areas of ironworking and if I am working on the structuralerecting portion of it, then yes, I work up high.
Q: Are there many women ironworkers?
A: There are more than there used to be. It was once a very male dominant profession but more women areentering the industry than ever before. Many of the women who have become ironworkers will tell you that the work is very rewarding and they earn far better money than they wouldin more traditionalcareers.
Q: Have you ever gotten hurt doing your job?
A: Yes, I once had my lower calf cut open by a saw. It required 20 stitches but as I was recovering I was able to work in the office where I learned how to read blueprints.
Q: Do you have to work in other states or do you stay in your own hometown?
A: During the recession I had to go where I could find work. I went to South Carolina for almost five years. I worked on a new nuclear construction site as a foreman in several warehouses for a major construction company where I was able to explore new opportunities in material management, making me a more knowledgeable ironworker when I came back to Wisconsin.
Q: Are you able to advance in your line ofwork?
A: With proper training, a journeyperson can move up to several positions (foreman, general foreman, then superintendent). Since I believe strongly in working safe, I took a class in Chicago to become certified through the Board of Safety Professionals to be a safety trained supervisor in construction.
Q: How many members are there in your local and how many women are there?
A: There are 1,460 members in Local 8 and there are only 9 women.
Q: What are your favorite projects to work on?
A: I love working on the new construction of powerplants. I find them fascinating with all the components that are required to complete them and they usually take a few years tocomplete.
Q: Do you work all year round?
A: Most of the projects we do are year round in all kinds of weather. Depending on the project, sometimes there is work to do on the inside in inclement weather. If you are working outside in Wisconsin in the winter you can certainly buy good work clothes to keep you warm.
Q: Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
A: Hopefully I will be a safety representative for the ironworkers on the construction sites. If that doesn’t pan out then I’m hoping the knowledge and experience I received in material management and warehousing presents an opportunity. Material management is a big part of what ironworkers do as well. There will be more power plants being built in the future and they will require safety reps as well as material managers and I hope to be a part of it.