GREENSBURG, Pa. — The worker slaps mortar onto a brick, then taps it into place with a practiced move of the trowel. A second worker makes certain the work is level, while a third dumps more mortar onto the mud board and prepares to lay up another course of brick.
It's a typical day in the masonry shop at the Indiana County Vocational-Technical School--except that the workers putting up this brick house happen to be female.
There are four girls enrolled in the masonry classes, a clear minority of 37 total students, but the largest group by far in the 15 years Louis Iezzi has been teaching the trade.
"I taught in Johnstown for 10 years, and in those 10 years I never had a girl enroll," he said.
In the first five years after Indiana County's "vo-tech" opened its doors, one girl took Iezzi's masonry class. This year, six signed up.
Although Iezzi said he was surprised to see so many females on his roster, he believes that Indiana County students who tour the facility may be encouraged when they hear the masonry program has a "co-ed shop."
"When we have tours, the kids tell them it's a co-ed shop. It is open to females," he said.
Two of the six young women later dropped out, opting for other areas that were "more traditional," but four others have joined the class. Three of them are in their second year and will graduate from high school this spring.
"They do everything the boys are expected to do; I don't give them any slack. When it's their turn to mix mortar or sweep floors, they do it," he said.
As the students learn their trade, they build various projects in the shop, such as block walls, brick arches and the house facade the girls were working on recently.
Some projects are done with the students working in pairs, while others must be completed independently.
But despite the encouragement he gives to his female students, Iezzi said, "I don't believe the average girl would want to be a bricklayer. Physically, it's too hard on them.
"If all they were doing is laying brick, there'd be no problem. They have the dexterity and the mental attitude. But a 12-inch block goes 78 pounds, and you're expected to lay 300 to 500 of those a day."
Still, if a female bricklayer has the physical capabilities, Iezzi believes she might have a better chance to get into a union apprenticeship program than a male, even in these troubled economic times in western Pennsylvania where work is often difficult to find in the construction industry.
Iezzi, a union bricklayer since 1947, said he has never worked with a woman bricklayer and doesn't know of any in the area.
"If they do their job, I don't think they'll have too many problems--but I don't know if the guys would help them."
Lea Palermo, one of Iezzi's second-year students, said she hasn't had any trouble with the physical requirements of the masonry program.
The senior from Homer-Center High School said she enrolled in the class "to be different," and has found it easier than she expected.
The hard part is "acting tough like the boys. They act so tough so you gotta be tough in here too," she said.
Heidi Mucheski, one of two seniors from United High School in the masonry class, said she took the class because she likes to work outdoors.
"I think it's good for a girl to go out for something like this," she said, adding that her parents have offered her encouragement and support in her selection of a "nontraditional" area.
Kathy Deyarmin got some advice from her father that prompted her to enroll in the masonry class. After she proved adept at helping him with many household projects, he advised her to get into a trade school. She chose bricklaying and said she doesn't have any regrets.
Although their parents are supportive, the girls say they got a few "hassles" from the boys in the their masonry class and in their high schools. That teasing has lessened considerably now.
The girls said they expect to be accepted like any other worker when they are out on the job with other masons.
All plan to attend a full-time vocational-technical school when they graduate from high school.