PEORIA — Bridget Booker wasn’t happy with her life, so she changed it.
Seven and a half years ago the single mother of three children, ages 9, 2 and 1, was struggling to get by working full time as a cosmetologist. Today she is a journeyman ironworker with Iron Workers Local 112 in East Peoria, and she’s about to become her own boss. She recently incorporated her business, Reign Construction, and has several contracts to fulfill with the new construction season.
While she was happy with the money she was making as an ironworker, Booker started the business because she wants to make a larger contribution to her community.
“I have a personal vendetta to go after,” said Booker. She talked about Peoria’s 2016 ranking as the worst place for African Americans, the result of data compiled by the online data outlet 24/7 Wall St. “I want to make my community aware that you can become something. My life hasn’t been perfect, but you have to work through those obstacles.”
For Booker, it comes down to self-accountability.
“What are you gonna do to make it better for you?”
Discovering the trades
Booker was in her first year at the University of Mississippi when she got pregnant with her first child. She dropped out of school and came home to raise her daughter. Though Booker worked two jobs, the money she earned didn’t cover her bills, so she applied for public aid. In an effort to make a better life for her growing family, Booker went to cosmetology school and, when she finished, began working full time. Though the money was decent, the job didn’t provide benefits, so she continued to need public assistance. She wasn’t happy.
“I wasn’t raised that way. I was 23 when I went on public assistance, and it was a culture shock.”
The daughter of a career Caterpillar man, Booker was raised to be self-sufficient.
“My family motto, according to my dad is, ‘I taught her how to change brakes and her mama taught her how to bake cakes.’ He taught me how to fix things — cars and things around the house.”
Growing up in Peoria, Booker learned all kinds of useful skills usually only taught to boys, so it wasn’t such a leap to envision herself in a trade when she found an informational pamphlet on Illinois Central College’s Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP). Booker came upon the pamphlet at a time when she was feeling particularly low about her life. The father of her first child had just died suddenly, a traumatic event which furthered her financial woes.
“I saw the pamphlet when I was picking up my daughter at Head Start,” said Booker. “That same day I called ICC.”
HCCTP is a 12-week program designed to increase the number of minorities, women and disadvantaged individuals working in the construction trades. Students learn about each of the different trades and how to get into them.
“We learned about all the trades — carpenters, ironworkers, boilermakers, sheet metal workers. We spent a week learning about each,” said Booker.
The program also teaches key personal skills which help students to be successful, said Kevin Carter, executive director of the Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council and Peoria Area Labor Management. Seven and a half years ago, Carter was an instructor in HCCTP. He became an important mentor for Booker.
“One of the things I introduced to the class was the author Napoleon Hill,” said Carter. “He wrote the 1936 book ‘Think and Grow Rich.’ It was a million seller and nobody has ever heard of it.”
The book and others Hill wrote teach the principles of personal achievement, things such as self-discipline, developing a purpose, having a pleasing demeanor and positive attitude. Hill also talked about adversity and how to overcome it, a principal Booker has used over and over to get where she is today.
“Bridget listened and put into action what she was taught in those classes, and that has made her successful,” said Carter.
At the end of the program, Booker decided to become an ironworker. She was inspired by a photograph she saw of Lisa Lockhart, the first female ironworker in Local 112.
“There was this woman standing on the top of a building and she looked so cool. She was an ironworker, and that inspired me.” Booker later got in touch with Lockhart, who is now retired. The pair have become friends, and Booker considers her an important mentor.
After finishing HCCTP, it took a year and a half for Booker to get accepted into Local 112′s apprenticeship program — they start a new program every two years, and Booker had missed the application period by six months. She used that time to take prerequisite classes at ICC, and when she earned her forklift certificate she got a job at G&D Integrated.
“It wasn’t a better-paying job than cosmetology, but it gave me the experience with machinery,” she said.
The day she began her apprenticeship at Local 112 and started getting health benefits, Booker went to the public aid office and asked to stop receiving benefits.
“I wanted my independence back, my self-sufficiency back,” she said. “I don’t knock anybody that’s using it, but I felt it was mediocre for me. I want to make sure my kids have the best.”
Enjoying the challenge
The three years Booker spent in Local 112′s apprenticeship program were both exciting and exhausting. Like most of the trades, ironworking is physically demanding.
“You have days when it kicks your butt,” said Booker. “You have to be in shape, and you have to have a positive attitude. You have to love it or you won’t survive.”
Booker was quick to prove her abilities when challenged by male co-workers, and she generally earned their respect. Still, there have been a few who made it clear they didn’t think a black woman belonged on the job site. Bolstered by her goal to be a good role model for her children, Booker addressed those situations with as much professionalism as she could muster.
“Don’t set me aside as a black woman. I can do the job as well as anyone. I have chosen this job and embrace it,” she said. “I always try to put a smile on my face and come to work with a positive attitude. Then I don’t have to worry about someone else’s negative energy.”
Booker finished the apprenticeship and became a journeyman ironworker about three years ago. This past winter she took advantage of the seasonal building lull to start Reign Construction. In February, the company was one of six minority-owned businesses to receive a $2,500 prize through the Minority Business Implementation Grant Program (M-BIG) established by the city of Peoria in conjunction with Peoria County.
“She is a dynamo!” said First District Peoria City Councilwoman Denise Moore, who was on the M-BIG panel. “I found her very passionate about her work and very excited about her business potential. She understands that it will take hard work, perseverance and drive to succeed in her chosen field. I have no doubt she will be successful.”
For Booker, the road to change started with her kids. Today, now 16, 10, 8, they are her biggest supporters.
“My son loves it,” she said. “He has me come to school to talk to the class, and I gotta come wearing a harness and carrying a bucket of tools.”
Booker also regularly speaks at ICC, Bradley and other organizations — basically any chance she can get to tell people about trades.
“This has been a blessing. If you don’t know what you want to do, the trades are the best way. It sure beats $7.25 an hour. This job has been a life-changer for me, and I’ve been enjoying the challenge.”
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