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Women in Construction: Operating Engineer Mahaila Houle

Mahaila Houle’s first dream job was to be a ballerina.

Granted this was when she was four years old. Since then, she’s changed a bit. Houle went from future ballerina, to a tomboy, to going to college for art, then psychology, and then on to motorcycle engineering.

While Houle’s journey has had lots of twists and turns already, she’s learned that by being persistent, you can find a career that matters to you. When thinking back to high school and her decisions for the future, Houle said she wished educators taught students about the option of apprenticeship and what careers were available to her.

What connects Houle’s many interests is her curiosity about how things work.

“Growing up, I had never been encouraged by others to look into construction – and for a long time, I didn’t know that women were construction workers, or that a growing number of women were actually in these fields,” the 26-year-old said. “In a way, I felt like I was manipulated by the ‘cookie cutter’ ideas my family, friends and teachers had about going to college after high school, getting a good job, and starting a family.”

With each experience, she learned more about herself, and over time, she discovered an interest in operating heavy equipment, such as bulldozers and excavating machines.

As a member of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior, Houle enrolled in a pre-training program for members of the Chippewa Tribe to learn how to operate heavy equipment through the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 49.

Eventually, she joined the union as an apprentice.

“Finding a career where I have all these great benefits – a 401k, health insurance, a good pension – is so important. I’m already building a financially stable life for myself,” Houle said. “I can’t imagine not being a part of a union now.”

Read Mahaila Houle’s story here.

Houle on the job site. She receives hands-on training and gets paid to learn through her apprenticeship with Local 49.

Uptake in the Number of Women in Construction
Since 2015, careers in construction and apprenticeship opportunities have received more and more female applicants.

“Nowadays, women are never alone in the construction world,” said Sarah Lechowich, senior director for the Construction Careers Foundation. “Women can be found working in all 30 of the construction careers found on our website, and they hold a variety of roles from apprentice to foreman.”

On average, women accounted for 12.2 percent of all Minnesota construction workers in 2017, according to the most recent data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“The percentage of women in and joining Minnesota’s construction industry continues to grow each year,” Lechowich said. “Minnesota already is 3 percent above the national average and Construction Careers Foundation is addressing the need to educate young women on careers in construction in middle school and high school, so they have time to explore and consider careers with great benefits and high pay.”

For more stories about women in Minnesota’s construction trades, check out Success Stories on Through these stories, real construction workers share their experience in Minnesota’s construction trades – how they got into the trades, why construction is right for them, and what they get out of their work. also has lots of information about how to apply for an apprenticeship, what type of work is expected for each construction profession, and reasons why high school students should explore the trades while also exploring going to college or serving in the military.