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Breaking out of the pink-collar ghetto: nontraditional jobs for women.

By entering - and succeeding - in trades traditionally reserved for men, women not only are lifting their families out of poverty, but also are giving their children wider opportunities.

During her first day on the job, Sandy Durham's boss told her to watch out for rattlesnakes. "He wasn't kidding," says Durham, who has seen several while driving a water truck for a road construction crew in southwestern Montana. There are other, more common hazards, such as the heavy, serpentine hose that sometimes flies off the water pump or the sharp inclines of the mountain roads, but Durham is not fazed. "I love the construction business and I feel I'm a very capable driver."

What's more, she earns $19.01 an hour, nearly four times what she made in previous jobs harvesting potatoes, waiting on tables, or flipping hamburgers. The extra income has enabled her to buy new school clothes for her two daughters, repair her trailer home, and stop worrying about where their next meal is coming from.

In the spring of 1992, Durham did not even know that jobs like hers were open to women. "I quit school to get married," she notes. "I just planned on being a housewife and mother." When she and her husband separated after 14 years of marriage, she went on public assistance to survive. Then, her welfare case worker told her about a new program to train women for jobs traditionally dominated by men, but now gradually opening to women. Having driven her husband's truck a few times, she thought the truck-driving course would be right for her. Three months later, she passed the test for a commercial driver's license. It proved to be her ticket out of the pink-collar ghetto.

Durham began her move out of poverty with the help of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). Working closely with local organizations and businesses, WOW gives technical assistance to job-training programs for low-income women in Milwaukee, Wis., and Hartford, Conn., as well as throughout Montana. Based in Washington, D.C., WOW has been active in female employment issues for more than 25 years. Its nontraditional training project aims to expand their access to dozens of lucrative industries once closed to them. Thanks to new Federal legislation, job-training programs are required to prepare women for higher-paying, nontraditional jobs. They are using WOW'S project as a model.

According to June Zeitlin, deputy director of the Rights and Social Justice program at the Ford Foundation, which has granted WOW $675,000, that project comes at an opportune time. "There is a renewed interest in welfare reform and recognition that options for getting women out of poverty are limited. This has led policymakers to focus on training for nontraditional employment as a way of providing women with a real route to self-sufficiency."

Although females have been making inroads into the legal, medical, and business professions, they have been less successful in breaking into the world of truck drivers, carpenters, or welders - jobs that pay 30% more than secretarial work or waitressing. Though women make up nearly half of the workforce, they account for just nine percent of those in the skilled trades and less than two percent in the high-paying construction industry.

Three-quarters of working women have low-paying jobs with little security, few benefits, and scant room for advancement. Yet, nearly half are their family's primary breadwinner. It is not surprising that one of every five working women in the U.S. is poor, and one of every four children grows up in poverty.

Government programs have not always done enough to help women get higher-paying jobs. The thousands of females trained each year under the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) and Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs usually are directed into positions that pay little more than the minimum wage. Convinced that systemic change was needed, WOW began working with local JTPA and JOBS offices to devise ways to introduce more women to high-paying nontraditional careers. This system-wide approach builds on the experience that WOW and other organizations gained during more than two decades of conducting their own nontraditional training programs for females. In addition, legal rights organizations asserted the right of women to enter once all-male professions through several lawsuits, removing gender barriers in construction, transportation, and firefighting. Despite these accomplishments, the percentage of females employed in these trades barely has budged over the past 20 years. For this reason, WOW is working to get the process moving.

Since the passage of the Non-traditional Employment for Women (NEW) Act of 1991 - requiring all states to increase the number of females trained in nontraditional occupations - wow has emerged as a leading voice. It has shared its experiences with legislators and Federal job-training officials and is providing technical assistance to help implement the legislation. Over the next four years, up to 24 states will receive Federal funds to create programs, many to be modeled on WOW'S nontraditional employment training project.

"The WOW women made a compelling case that the Job Training Partnership Act wasn't working well for women," points out Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D.-Ohio). "Now, their continued hard work is demonstrating how well the NEW Act can work in the states."

WOW'S project is providing high-paying jobs for women, even in states like Montana, where a stagnant rural economy means that work is hard to find for everyone. Yet, 24 of the 30 women who have completed the training program in Missoula have found jobs that pay a good wage, provide benefits, and offer a chance to move up the career ladder. Most now work for the Montana Department of Transportation, the Forestry Service, or for private contractors. Some earn up to $20 an hour.

Breaking into skilled

trades

The project's success stems largely from WOW'S orchestration of local training groups, women's organizations, employers, unions, and vocational schools. Such groups do not always see eye to eye, but on one issue they have managed to find common ground - preparing females for the skilled trades.

Leaders of the Montana project decided to train women as truck drivers, flaggers, and surveyor's aides on the state's extensive highway system, which is in constant need of maintenance and repair. Women's Opportunity Resource Development, a local organization, and the Montana Private Industry Council, which administers the state's JTPA programs, obtained Federal funds for the project. Employers worked with the local vocational school to design the training curricula and also provided instructors for the truck-driving course. A union leader raised funds for a video to recruit women into the skilled trades and helped win over businesses and unions previously reluctant to hire them.

A similar process was undertaken by leaders of the Milwaukee project. At WOW'S suggestion, they researched the local job market and found that, despite major plant closings, machinists were in short supply. Orienting the program to meet this need, they began to train women as machinists and also as welders, carpenters, and printers. Employers, vocational training schools, and community-based training organizations reserved places for those who completed a three-week introductory course organized by the YWCA and Milwaukee Women in the Trades (WITT). It includes hands-on experience. tool identification, math, and physical conditioning.

The YWCA and WITT act as liaison with employers interested in hiring the women coming out of the training programs. All the jobs put workers on career paths that lead to annual salaries of $30-50,000 within five years.

In a crowded cafeteria at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, graduates of the nontraditional employment training program have gotten together to talk about their new prospects. They are bursting with enthusiasm about the program, which they indicate has made them feel better about their offering them a financially viable future. One remarks that the program gave her back the self-esteem she by being on government assistance, others quickly agree. Lauren Baker, who teachers the Milwaukee orientation course, explains that "We're trying to change their lives, instead of putting on a Band-Aid. They see that with a goal they can change their lives."

Latricia Bland, who graduated from the first Milwaukee training class, says, I'm looking five years ahead." The mother of three children, she cites some of her goals: to get off welfare, obtain a job in machine tooling, earn her journey worker's card, and take a high school equivalency exam, something she nearly had given up on. "It seemed like every time I went to take the test I was too depressed to concentrate on it. Now I figure I'm wiping the slate clean. I'm thinking dollar signs."

A chief concern in designing the training programs was to meet the special needs of the students, all of whom are women with children. Without free child care, for example, few mothers could enroll. In rural Montana, where transportation is equally as important as child care, program funds were needed to underwrite travel, in some cases over long distances, during their training.

The programs also teach women how to interview for the job they want and how to keep it. According to Donna Milgram, who directs WOW'S nontraditional training project, the most common reason females quit the skilled trades is sexual harassment on the job. A study by Philadelphia Women in the Trades reports that 91 % of those who had left their jobs had experienced sexual harassment. WOW teaches the women how to deal with being unwelcome on an all-male job site. They learn how to defuse a situation before it turns into full-fledged sexual, harassment, as well as the proper steps for taking legal action when it does occur.

To address the issue of sexual harassment in the trades, Rep. Constance Morella R.-Md.) introduced the Women in Apprenticeship Occupations and Nontraditional Occupations Act of 1992. She points out that "Women in nontraditional jobs face special discrimination. If they are in white-collar jobs, there is the glass ceiling; if they are in blue-collar jobs, often there is a solid brick wall." The law, intended to prevent sexual harassment, is designed to break down that wall by helping employers and labor unions create a workplace more receptive to women.

It provides up to $1,000,000 for organizations such as WOW to hold seminars for employers, unions, and workers on ways to create a harassment-free environment for women, foster more support groups like Milwaukee Women in the Trades, and recruit more women into nontraditional fields. Milgram sees the law as the second half of the NEW Act. She observes that the two pieces of legislation make up the largest national effort to train females for nontraditional work since World War II, when women were urged to take men's places in the factories and "Rosie the Riveter" was a national heroine.

Sandy Durham hardly would cast herself in the role of heroine, but her two daughters, Katina and Kasey, probably would. "They were so proud of me when I got the job driving the water truck." During Montana's long winter, road construction comes to a halt, but Durham receives unemployment compensation until the spring thaw.

As far as her months of driving a truck, "I ... can see doing this job however long I can. Women have always been taught that there are jobs we can't do, but I've found out that I can. More little girls need to know that women can do more than housework, secretarial work, and flipping hamburgers. I'm bringing up my girls to know that they can do anything." Indeed, WOW'S project shows that women, by entering - and succeeding in - trades traditionally reserved for men, are not only lifting their families out of poverty, but are giving their children wider opportunities.
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Article Details
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Author:Coleman, Elizabeth
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:1936
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