Voices From Here: Kathy Bertsch Loses A Desk Job, And A Construction Worker Is Born

Oct 26, 2016

In January, Kathy Bertsch was laid off from her job of 10 years at an engineering and manufacturing company. It was a desk job, and she had grown a bit restless there, but it was the job she had planned to retire from.

Bertsch had three months of severance pay, then was left with unemployment benefits and the task of rebuilding a career.

She went to a Seattle job fair, where she began talking with representatives of a group called ANEW, or Apprenticeship & Nontraditional Employment for Women.

And so at 45 years old, Bertsch found herself training to be a construction laborer. Those are the people tasked with some of the most physically strenuous work at a construction site: digging ditches, carrying materials, and clearing debris.

It's work that's in demand as a construction boom transforms King County. Construction firms are bulldozing bungalows at a frenzied pace to make way for houses two or three times as large. Experts say there aren't enough construction workers to meet the demand for new homes, which is contributing to the region's soaring real-estate prices. 

"I've been doing office work the past 10 years plus," Bertsch said. "And it was like, I've got to do something different. That's not where the money is. Construction is where the money is, and you don't know until you try."

'The System Is Broken'

When Bertsch talks about why she supports Donald Trump for president, she talks about her sense that the country has lost some of that attitude -- a capacity for risk and work that allowed her to change careers.

She talks about a feeling she has that people aren't as willing to take responsibility for their lives as they once were, that too many are after what she calls "freebies." 

And she talks about her sense that those who "are doing everything by the book" are at a disadvantage, while others reap rewards for cutting corners. 

"I think there needs to be a process of who we let into this country," she said. "Because if they just let anyone in, they're going to end up having kids and then we're going to have to cover their kids. And that's just not fair to us who are already in the States who are struggling to find work."

When asked about changes she'd like to see in the country, she said there's a need for "order" and "direction for people."  

"The system is broken," she said. "I would fix that. I would make sure that rules are enforced and everybody abides by the rules. No shortcuts." 

Bertsch lives with her husband in a ranch-style house near Auburn, about a 20-minute drive from where she grew up, in Renton. She's spent her life in a region that, by some measures, is growing and changing faster than just about any other corner of the United States. 

She doesn't like what she's seeing. 

"People aren't nice anymore," she said. "You see road rage all the time ... Everyone's out there for themselves. And that's why I do community service; that's why I do volunteering."

One of Bertsch's joys is baking snacks for people who donate blood at a center in Federal Way -- but baking has become a complicated undertaking. Bertsch lost her senses of taste and smell in a 2002 accident. She said she was working two jobs, grew exhausted, and collapsed, hitting her head on a marble floor. 

She said she misses the smell of coffee and fresh-cut grass. But she hasn't stopped baking. She's adapted.

She said she follows recipes exactly and having her husband taste-test what she makes. And she monitors the oven closely, because she can't smell if something's burning. 

'What Have You Got To Lose?' 

That kind of persistence, she said, helped her thrive as the oldest student in her class of construction worker trainees. 

"We had a girl that just graduated from high school there," she said. "And I'm looking around like, 'I'm the oldest one here.' But that's okay. I'm going to show the older generation, you've got this. You can do this. There's still hope for you. Life's too short not to try."

Bertsch spent 11 weeks training alongside other women in the use of heavy machinery, physical fitness, and math skills that are useful in construction and electrical work. She graduated last month and is looking for a construction apprenticeship. 

She said that, if she were trying to convince someone to vote for Donald Trump, she'd ask them the same question she asked herself after she lost her job and decided to step into that career fair.

"You're unemployed; you're not working; what have you got to lose?" she said. "You're homeless, or things could be better, what have you got to lose? Well, I completely believe in that. What have you got to lose?"