Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Elizabeth Playo. Elizabeth, aka @misses.e.playo, is one of Chicago’s few women in the field of Skilled General Labor with #LIUNA Local 6. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Elizabeth is a proud supporter of the trades and the #UNIONS that run, support, provide educational advancement, and uphold them! For 20 years, she worked in the Office Management field and completed 3 years of Nursing school when she found herself at a crossroads. It took some advice and encouragement from her husband, but she jumped into the Skilled General Labor field and never looked back. Elizabeth absolutely loves what she does and finds that every day in the construction field is different from the last. She looks forward to seeing more women choosing the trades as their profession and hopes to be an inspiration for that movement.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
I got started within the labor trade about 5 years ago. I did start off in the corporate world and was in office management for 10 years. While I was doing that, I did payroll for various tradesmen – including my husband, who was a laborer, so I saw what they got paid and the benefits. I moved on from that to nursing, because I thought that was what I wanted to do. Then 3 years later, I realized nursing wasn’t for me. I withdrew from classes, and my husband said, “Why don’t you talk to the company you were working for before so you can get you into the trades?” And I was like, “You know what? I think I will.” The benefits alone are magnificent compared to anything I’ve seen. So I completed the apprenticeship, and here I am 7 years later. I’m a journeyman in the construction field, and I absolutely love it!
What has your journey been like since you started?
I actually went to the labor field because they needed labor, so I didn’t completely finish the classes. The labor field is pretty big within the apprenticeship and in Chicago. I got pulled in and started working right away, so all of my training has been hands-on. I think that’s been a bit of a struggle, but then it’s also where I find the fulfillment. It’s challenging as a female in the industry, and I’m only 5’2” tall, so I have to learn how to do the same things that my male counterparts are able to do easily. I’m 7 years in, but I’m still learning certain skills. This year has been a demolition year for me, so I’ve been working on the demo side of things, and it’s been a lot of fun. It keeps you in shape, that’s for sure!
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I wouldn’t pinpoint one thing, but being a female in the industry… I’m so proud. You don’t realize how many women actually want to go into the industry, and they just don’t know how or where to start. I’ve had tons of female friends and people through Instagram or Facebook ask me how I got started. What makes me happy is that I’m putting this field in the forefront for people, and for women especially.
My daughter’s a nursing student, but she told me she might not want to finish and go into the trades instead. It’s up to her, but I wouldn’t be opposed to it now after being in it. It’s so fulfilling to start something and be there at the end of it, and even more so to be part of building the landscaping of a great city like Chicago. It’s awesome.
What are the most challenging parts of your work?
The challenge in the beginning was as a female coming into this industry. It was a bit difficult, a grin-and-bear-it kind of thing. Some men just dismiss you and you have to prove yourself. If you just stay true to yourself and show them that you’re part of the team, they can warm up to you. Some are also overly helpful, and you have to say, “Hey, I got this.”
Being in tune with your body as a female is also a challenge. You have to learn how to lift things in a different way based on your own strengths. And definitely as a parent, because I’m in an industry where I have to start my days at 4 am, so not being there to help your kids get ready and off to school. It’s hard, but we got through it. You’ll figure something out, and you’ll get through it.
What is the biggest misconception about your work?
I think it’s the title that makes people think we’re not as skilled as the others, but we need to be skilled in a bit of everything, because you’re helping with everything. We’re here to help maintain the site and make the other trades jobs a little bit easier. We’re also here to promote safety for all the other trades. I started my day helping the iron workers out, and I’m probably going to end my day helping out the electricians. You could be sweeping for an hour, and the next hour you’re doing a demolition of a wall. I’d say don’t overlook the general labor trade. If anything, I think women might be better at it because we’re good multitaskers.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
It sounds so cliche, but just being a team player! Honestly, in any job or field you choose, you need to be a team player. That’s big here, because one thing doesn’t get done without the other. You have to be accountable to others and yourself, not standing on the sidelines despite feeling like you’re excluded, and just jumping right into the nitty gritty and getting dirty with drywall, mud, etc.
What have you learned about yourself from being in the trades?
I’ve learned that I’m pretty adaptable. I came in here with no experience, and I adapted pretty quickly, and that’s something nice that I didn’t know about myself. Mentally, it’s so stress free. You get to go into work, get your tasks, and just get them done. You go home feeling fulfilled and content with yourself, as opposed to the stresses of a never-ending kind of job or a field where the job is still there, and you go home, and you’re thinking about it or working. It’s not an industry that you’re taking home. I used to think that work is 24 hours a day, and I’ve learned that it’s not. When you’re home, you’re actually home and you’re free to do what you want.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
It’s been pretty trying for all of us the last few years. I think I’ve seen a shift in people’s attitudes towards the trades after they’ve been overlooked for so long. College has been pushed for so long, and I’ve pushed it as well on my children, but you just don’t have to go to college and take on all those loans. My grandfather was in the trades and made a pretty good living. It’s funny how we are pushing a collegiate career on our children when maybe they’re not meant for school. It’s easy to pick up a skill when you’re learning hands-on. A lot of us do learn better hands-on.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
I will say that I’ve never been as healthy or as strong as I have been in the last 4 years! To get started, I would look up your local union and see what you’re interested in. They can give you all the important information. Getting started is easier than you think, and cheaper than you think. Just go for it! It’s not going to take much, other than your time and dedication. You’re not going to take on loans, and you’re going to go right into an apprenticeship. Don’t doubt yourself and don’t be afraid. I know there are trades that need you to pass some tests, and I’ve heard stories that people have taken the tests a few times and passed on the third try, but it’s still worth it. It’s always worth it. Keep trying! Our field is also one of the only fields that actually provides preventive health care, which makes a world of a difference.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I love spending time with my family. I also really love concerts! I love a mix of genres. I’ve recently seen Drake White, which is country. Before that was Guns N Roses, and a couple weeks earlier I saw Korn. My husband and I enjoy going to shows, and we highly recommend the Windy City Smokeout in Chicago.
Our thanks to Elizabeth for making time to share her story and industry insights with us.
You can follow and support Elizabeth on the following platforms: