The Eleven Percent: Meet Andrea Harris, Cement Mason

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FDNY's first female cement mason, Andrea Harris, talks about hard work, manicures and what's in her tool bucket.

This FHM series introduces readers to a few of the women who make up 11 percent of the construction workforce in the U.S., spotlighting stories of their careers in the field. Know someone we should feature? Email us here.

When she was eight years old, Andrea Harris’ parents moved her and her five siblings from the Caribbean island of Antigua to New York City. Though Harris often dreamed of a career in journalism, a university education wasn’t in the cards financially. She eventually found herself working in retail.

Then one day, her mom asked her if she’d consider a job in construction.

“I said, ‘I’ll do anything right now that makes money,’ but no one believed me,” she says. “I don’t want to say I’m a girly girl, but I’m soft, and some people were like, `There’s no way you can do that.’

“And now I’m going into my 26th year as a cement mason. Wow.”

She first worked building bridges and high-rises. After giving her mom a kidney in 2005 — “One of the best things I have ever done,” she says — Harris switched to the public sector, becoming the first woman cement mason for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Her day-to-day duties include repairing curb aprons, garage floors and other projects that keep firehouses safe.

“When I entered the trades, there were only two or three women in my local,” she says. “We were so few and far between.” One was plumber Judaline Cassidy, whom she now works with at Tools & Tiaras, a nonprofit that introduces girls and young women to the trades.

We caught up with Harris for her thoughts on the state of the cement mason trade.

Q: How has COVID affected your work?

A: There have been challenges. At FDNY, we didn’t slow down. The firehouse never closes. Since I’m an essential worker, I was still out every day. As soon as something breaks, we have to make sure they’re never offline. Was it a little nerve-wracking? Absolutely, but it’s my job. It’s what I do. I’m amazing. I fix things.

Q: Which cement projects stand out to you?

A: As you know, 9/11 was horrible for the City of New York. I had the opportunity to work on rebuilding the first PATH train tunnel, pouring the concrete that the tracks go on. I walked from New York to New Jersey underground. When I’m watching the news and I see the train going through the tunnel, I’m like, “Yeah, I was there.” I know how important that transportation is.

Q. What changes have you seen over the past 10 years?

A. When I’m driving by a construction job and I see all of these women working, in my heart I’m cheering. You remember how we were out there clapping for the first responders? I want to be out there clapping for these women, because look at what’s changed from where we started 20-plus years ago. I absolutely love that.

I also love that safety is more at the forefront in the trades, like knowing what dust we’re breathing in and what machinery could be used more safely.

Q. Any pros or cons to being a woman cement mason?

A. One challenging part is guys thinking you’re just a helper, or saying you can’t do it. I say, “Relax, you’ll see the outcome, and you’re going to love it.” Then they see it and they’re like, “Do you do side work?” Now they want to hire me, and I’m like, “I’m unavailable.”

It’s also a great wage. Yeah, we get our nails done. We get our pedicures. We work really hard to take care of ourselves and our families, so we get to take nice trips and buy nice things.

Q. Any advice for young women looking to be cement masons?

Andrea HarrisCourtesy Andrea Harris

A. On my tools, I draw a heart and a diamond. If you’re all heart and as tough as a diamond, then no one can penetrate your thoughts. Tell yourself you can do this and you can.

One of my mottos is a Judy Garland quote, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else.” I love that so much. That quote is saying, “Be you.” Also, know that there are a lot of women willing to mentor, teach and guide you.

As for the physical part, you have to know your limits. If you feel you can pick up a 50-pound bag of cement, then do it. But we have hand trucks and it’s 2022. If you have a good team, everybody chips in. It’s almost like fighting a war. Everyone is in the trenches.

Q. Do you have any advice for people thinking of hiring women?

A. For years it’s been looked upon that a woman’s job should be at home, or maybe taking care of the kids, or working in an office or a restaurant. People don’t realize we’re always pushing ourselves to be just as good as, or even better than the men we work with.

Give the women applying for these jobs a chance. You might have a lifelong worker, a lifelong partner and even a lifelong friendship. I got a chance, and I guarantee you that when I go on a job, they know Andrea’s going to get it done right.

Q. You were in a Dove soap commercial. Tell us about that.

A. Yes, it ran for almost three years. Sometimes in commercials, you see a tradesperson with a hammer or a saw and you think, there’s no way that’s a real tradesperson. He or she is going to hurt themselves! But Dove shot me pouring concrete. I love that.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

tool setCourtesy Andrea Harris

A: I need a margin trowel (6-in. x 2-in. DuraSoft handle) for small patch jobs and to clean whatever other trowel I’m using. Marshalltown is my absolute favorite, with the rubber handle. It’s good for summer and winter.

I use a pull-up trowel (high carbon steel, 9-5/8-in. x 4-in., wood straight handle) if I’m pulling up concrete. I need a patch trowel (stainless, spot-welded, 12-in. x 4-in. DuraSoft straight handle) for inside finish jobs, to leave a smooth surface. I also need a rubber float for rubbing sand or cement, and a bucket to carry every last one of those things, and sometimes a tool pouch.

Masons don’t carry tool bags because our tools are so sharp, they’d cut holes in the bag. You also can’t put them in your back pocket. That just makes a mess.

Cement Mason Andrea Harris Bio

Andrea Harris likes to prove that women build New York every day. She became a cement mason in 1997, through the Cement Masons’ Local 780 apprenticeship program. She’s worked on bridges, high-rises and the rebuild of the World Trade Center PATH tunnels, as well as for the Department of Homeless Services.

She currently works as the first woman cement mason for FDNY. She is the Chief Empowerment Executive of Tools & Tiaras, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching girls and young women trade skills. She has won awards from FDNY and her union, Teamsters Local 237. To hear more, tune into her podcast, Tradeswomen Talk.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to FamilyHandyman.com. She spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. She has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.