July 18, 2010
Good pay, interesting work and apprenticeships draw women to skilled trades
Special to NWjobs
“Beautician to electrician,” Angela Rivers quipped, when reflecting on her career change. At age 49, she’s gearing up for a second career — one where she makes $23 per hour (plus benefits), at entry level, while learning to be an electrician.
Rivers recently completed a construction training class through Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women (ANEW), where she learned to tear down a building and build it back up.
“It was totally awesome,” she says of the training and hands-on experience. “Like they say, ‘If you love your job, you never work.’ ”
Find out about the wide array of trade careers through organizations such as the Washington Women in Trades Association (wawomenintrades.com), which hosts an annual job fair. These websites also offer information.
The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC): ajactraining.org
Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women (ANEW): sites.google.com/site/anew4you/
National Association of Women in Construction: nawicpugetsound.org Sisters in the Building Trades: sistersinthebuildingtrades.org
Washington State Department of Labor and Industries: lni.wa.gov/TradesLicensing/Apprenticeship/
ANEW was founded in 1980 to prepare women for the construction trades. Many of these jobs are defined as nontraditional by the U.S. Department of Labor: any occupation for which women make up less than 25 percent of the work force. As the Labor Department notes, these jobs are attractive because they generally offer high entry-level wages and a career ladder with pay of $20 to $30 per hour.
Interest is up despite the downturn in the economy and a dearth of construction jobs, says Johanna Chestnutt, the executive director at ANEW.
“The pull used to be higher wages,” she says, but unemployed women are now interested in retraining for a career change. They’re willing to wait for the eventual economic rebound. “We have a waitlist for fall,” Chestnutt says.
The 10-week construction-readiness program offered by ANEW (in partnership with Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood) introduces women to the construction industry. Women learn about industrial safety, how to use power tools and the variety of construction positions.
“Some women come in with an idea of what they want to do, but then they’ll switch interests after they’ve learned more,” Chestnutt says. “Maybe you’ve known a female carpenter, but you haven’t known a female operating engineer or female ironworker.”
Once a woman focuses on a career path, ANEW thoroughly preps her for the apprenticeship interview. An apprenticeship typically offers paid, supervised occupational-skills training, combined with classroom instruction, and lasts from two to four years.
About 85 percent of the women who complete ANEW’s training are accepted into apprenticeship programs.
For many women, a career change to a nontraditional field is a solid choice, says Melina Harris, president of the nonprofit Sisters in the Building Trades, an organization that offers support, advocacy and youth outreach.
According to Harris, the average age of entry into apprenticeships is 27. It’s the age at which some women realize that white-collar work isn’t paying enough to support a family or doesn’t appeal to their hands-on interests.
Women in skilled trades still face challenges — for example, finding child care that accommodates construction’s early hours or encountering outdated “girls-can’t-do-that” discrimination on the worksite.
Like many other industries, construction apprenticeships have been hammered by the economic downturn. The only way to find out whether an apprenticeship program has temporarily suspended application acceptance — or welcomes new apprentices — is to call the program directly, says Sandra K. Husband, apprenticeship consultant at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
Women interested in a trade job don’t always follow the traditional union apprenticeship path. Deborah Henry, a former white-collar worker, earned her plumbing hours in nonunion shops and has been a plumber for 10 years.
“No one, as a kid, says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a plumber,’ ” Henry says. “I didn’t.” Plumbers squeeze into the nooks and crannies of crawl spaces and often run into a home’s hidden residents, including rats and bugs.
One of Henry’s female clients was watching her work on a bathroom rough-in. “She said, ‘That sure looks like fun,’ and not sarcastically,” Henry says. “That’s what I’d like to convey — that plumbing can be a fun and satisfying career choice.”
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