Turning blue collars pink

The facts are compelling. According to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), “nontraditional” occupations-those with a workforce less than 25 percent female-pay more, and offer better benefits and greater autonomy (less direct supervision). But women in these fields are so underrepresented as to be rare.

‘There is no mix’
Susan Amacher didn’t exactly sit down and make a list of the positive reasons for making a career change. In her case, necessity was the mother of invention. Twenty years ago, she was a truck driver who had to load and unload her own freight by hand. “I thought, ‘This will get really old as I start getting older,'” Amacher recalled. She considered other things she might do, knowing: “I didn’t want to be at a desk.”

After a nudge from her father, who gave her a Wall Street Journal article reporting that “by the year 2000 we’d need about 410,000 auto mechanics,” Amacher began a two-year automotive technician program at Hennepin Technical College in 1990. Since 2002, she’s taught there herself.

In the 17 years since Amacher entered Hennepin Tech, she said, two things haven’t changed much: the supportiveness of the instructors, and the lack of women in class.

Amacher’s 21 fellow students were all men. While she got “a little flak” from the students, she said, her two male instructors were very supportive. Asked about the gender mix in her classrooms today, Amacher replied, “There is no mix-it’s 95 percent to 99 percent men.”

According to statistics from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), of 355 students completing carpentry programs in 2006, 96 percent were male. Other trades didn’t fare any better: 97 percent of electrical engineering students were male, as were 95 percent of those who completed precision metal working and 99 percent of HVAC-Refrigeration graduates.

Diverse paths to tech school
What are the schools doing to attract women? According to Carole Carlson, executive director of Institutional Advancement at Hennepin Tech, the school has had initiatives over the years to attract women to technical programs, with mixed success. She admits they have not made huge strides. “Building awareness of nontraditional careers and the opportunities available to women is a constant challenge,” she said.  

Hennepin Tech isn’t alone. Despite considerable marketing effort by Satiya Solomon, an instructor at Dunwoody College of Technology’s major appliance service program-including visiting high schools and staffing the Women in the Trades booth at GLBT Pride-her incoming class of seven students this fall includes no women. It’s a bit frustrating, yet understandable, to Solomon, who can cite many reasons for women to consider learning a trade like appliance repair.

Some women who go to technical college are career switchers like Amacher. Others, like Laura Thai, go right from high school to technical college. Thai, 19, enjoyed the metal shop classes she took in high school, and in her senior year, decided to check out Anoka Tech’s STEP (Secondary Technical Educational Program). STEP offers “high school in a college setting:” Students explore hands-on careers while earning high school and college credit. “I was hooked,” she said.

One “gateway” for women entering the trades is WomenVenture, an agency that since 1993 has introduced hundreds of women to nontraditional careers in areas like construction, manufacturing, printing and cable installation. The agency’s WomenBuild program (conducted with Habitat for Humanity) gives participants training and work experience over a five-week period.

Theresa Gardner, 32, will use her WomenBuild experience-she just finished helping to build a north Minneapolis house-as a springboard to a career in the trades; she will enter St. Paul College in either the pipefitting or sheet metal program this winter.

“I had a wonderful time,” Gardner said of WomenBuild. “I like to keep moving; I don’t like sitting still.” There wasn’t much time for sitting as Gardner and other women erected walls, installed windows, roofed, buildt a garage and more.

Previously, Gardner held customer service and collections jobs, which didn’t provide the satisfaction of “seeing something that I helped build.” Wages and benefits are also important to her: “I have two sons, so I have to think about their future.”

Though financial aid is available, some women may not be able to afford tuition or the time without a paycheck. For the upcoming school year, average tuition for a full-time student at a two-year public college will be $4,000. Dunwoody’s tuition and fees typically run $15,000 annually.

But enrolling in school isn’t the only option; for some, apprenticeship is the route to a career in a skilled trade. Apprentices earn about half the going tradesperson’s wage to start. Pay gradually increases over the length of the apprenticeship, until training is completed and the trainee attains full “journeyman” status. Apprenticeship qualifications vary between trades, but usually require a high school diploma or GED. Apprentices generally combine full-time employment with part-time classes.

Denise Wilson is on her way to becoming a journeywoman. Wilson found herself at a crossroads in 2004, when the company where she worked 11 years in shipping and receiving went under. She signed up with a temporary services agency, and when she got a call asking if she’d be interested in working and training in metal stamping, she went for it. Now, Wilson said proudly, “I’m almost a journeywoman.”

Wilson was hired by EJ Ajax Metal Stamping in Fridley, and they paid for her training. She recently completed training in metal forming (Level One and Level Two) through Hennepin Technical College’s Customized Training Services.

Hennepin Tech’s customized training is not open to the public; it generally takes place on location at the business site and is based on the needs and wants of the contracting business. Other schools have similar programs.

Supportive environment
Solomon admits that women going into technical careers face unique challenges. “Going into a nontraditional field is intimidating,” Solomon said. “Their [male] peers have been in the garage with Dad working on projects for the past 15 years; when I started school, I didn’t know the difference between a flathead and Phillips screwdriver.”

Solomon knows what she’s talking about. She completed Dunwoody’s major appliance service program in 2000; for the past four years, she’s been an instructor in the program. She is aware that along with the learning curve, it’s not easy to be one of just a few women on campus. “On campus, the women tend to congregate,” Solomon said. “There is strength in numbers.” And the screwdriver situations? She’s made a point of incorporating the correct use of tools into her curriculum.

Dunwoody supports women students through weekly meetings at its Women’s Resource Center. The meetings provide a forum where women students discuss campus and industry issues with each other, female instructors, and “industry partners”-women in the field. Mentorships are also arranged.

Hennepin Tech’s Amacher also strives to ensure a safe and supportive environment for female students. “The first day of class, I give what I call my Evil Susan Speech,” Amacher said. “I won’t have students harassed for any reason-because they’re women, gay or lesbian, foreign, or anything else. If someone thinks he can come in and be a good old boy, he’s mistaken. I’ll get them thrown out of school-and none of the other instructors will stand for it either.” Whether because of the speech or other reasons, Amacher said she hasn’t seen female students hassled.

Female students echo Amacher’s experience. “I have no problems being around the guys,” said Anoka Tech student Laura Thai. “I’m very tomboyish and we get along just fine. … I don’t really worry about males harassing me, and if they do I tell them to shove off and show them I can do anything they can do just as well.”

Thai, who has finished the first year of her two-year program at Anoka Tech, said her experience has been positive. “The instructor and lab assistant were very supportive. … The male students and the other female student were helpful too.”

Good jobs, great futures
Wages are generally good in technical fields. According the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s “MnCareers.org” site, median hourly wages are as follows: automobile mechanic, $16.20; carpenter, $19.80; electrician, $29.30; plumber/pipefitter, $27; roofer, $23.20. But low-end and high-end pay varies widely-among carpenters, for example, from $12.30 to $32.40. Since auto mechanics are paid by the job rather than the hour, noted Susan Amacher, slow and poorly trained workers might make $8/hour. But at the upper end, “The sky’s the limit-some technicians in the Twin Cities make six figures.”

With nine months of training, a woman who gets a job at CenterPoint Energy as a Home Service Plus technician-the career path Satiya Solomon herself followed-is paid $18.27 per hour to start. What’s more, the job comes with union backing and “excellent advancement opportunities,” Solomon said. Union benefits often mean better job protections and fringe benefits.

And then there’s the simple satisfaction of a job well done-sometimes despite initial skepticism from customers or coworkers. Solomon recalled that when she first started making home service calls, she’d ring the bell and a customer would “hold the door open, looking for the gentleman” who would presumably be fixing the dryer or range.

“But the next time they called,” Solomon noted with pride, “they were asking for me specifically.”

By the numbers
The percentage of women in skilled trades or “nontraditional” careers:
0.9% Brickmasons, blockmasons, stonemasons
1.2% Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters & steamfitters
1.4% Heating, AC, refrigeration installers & mechanics
1.8% Automotive service technicians & mechanics
1.9% Carpenters
2.4% Roofers
2.6% Electricians
2.8% Crane & tower operators
3.6% Construction laborers
3.6% Sheet metal workers
5.8% Welding, soldering & brazing workers
6.3% Construction managers
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005 Annual Averages

Interested in a “nontraditional” career?
Here’s our “who’s who” list of local technical colleges and programs.

Dunwoody College of Technology
818 Dunwoody Blvd.
Minneapolis, MN 55403-1192
Programs include: automated systems & robotics, automotive service, construction project supervision, heating & cooling systems, welding

Hennepin Technical College
9000 Brooklyn Blvd.
Brooklyn Park, MN 55445
Admissions: 763-488-2500
Programs include: automated machinery systems, automotive mechanics, carpentry, heating, ventilation & air conditioning

St. Paul College
235 Marshall Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55102
Admissions: 651-846-1666
Programs include: carpentry, construction electricity, construction management, construction trades, plumbing, sheet metal

Anoka Technical College
1355 West Highway 10
Anoka, MN 55303
Admissions: 763-576-4850
Programs include: construction electrician, plumbing, machine trades, welding

Dakota County Technical College
1300 145th St. E.
Rosemount, MN 55068
Admissions: 651-423-8302
Programs include: concrete masonry, electrical construction and maintenance, heavy construction equipment technology

Other programs to check out:
2324 University Ave. W.
St. Paul, MN 55114
WomenVenture and Merrick Community Services work with The St. Paul Building & Trades Association to host a 12-week training program for minorities and women each year. WomenVenture and Habitat for Humanity work together on the five-week WomenBuild program during the spring and summer months.

Women in the Trades
550 Rice St.
St. Paul, MN 55103
A nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women find and keep good jobs in nontraditional fields.