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Lisa Robinson looks over the shoulder of Sadie Stull as she shows how to use a circular saw at the Step Up to Construction Boot Camp held at the Windham Regional Career Center.

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Blazing a path towards financial independence

Vermont organization trains women for high-paying building-trade jobs

BRATTLEBORO—The crack of hammers striking nails and the high-pitched whirr of a circular saw echo from a construction bay at the Windham Regional Career Center.

Sadie Stull, an independent contractor with 30 years under her tool belt, signals to the six women building an outdoor shed for Morningside Shelter.

Setting down their tools, the Step Up to Construction Boot Camp students gather around Stull as she demonstrates cutting angles using a circular saw.

Stull is one of the teachers participating in the 40-hour training course designed to prepare students for entry-level jobs in residential and commercial construction.

This is the first training course offered in southern Vermont by Vermont Works for Women, a Winooski-based organization. Funding for the course comes through a two-year grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Caroline Chamberlain applied to the boot camp because she always wanted a job working with her hands.

She treasures “making something from the beginning to the end.”

Construction will be Chamberlain’s second career now that her son is in college. A single mother, Chamberlain worked as an accountant. The job paid the bills, but she hated it.

She hopes to move from entry-level construction jobs to site supervision work.

“With some support, you can do way more than you think you can do,” she said of the boot camp.

Lisa Robinson, a fellow student and resident of Sandgate, a tiny town in Bennington County, applied to the construction boot camp because she wanted better job opportunities.

Robinson, like many Vermonters, said one of her “Moonlight-in-Vermont-or-starve” jobs was as a flagger for fiber-optic installation projects.

The paycheck, however, was too unpredictable for Robinson and her two adolescent kids.

Wage gap

According to Rachel Jolly, director of women’s programs at Vermont Works, about 42 percent of men in the U.S. earn $50,000 or more annually.

In comparison, about 9 percent of women earn that level of pay, she said.

According to 2012 data from the U.S. Census Bureau — as analyzed and compiled by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) — Vermont women typically earn 15 percent less than their male counterparts. Nationwide, the gap is about 23 percent.

Median earnings for men in Vermont were $44,776, compared to women’s median earnings of $38,017, according to the AAUW.

Vermont Works focuses on helping women of all ages gain financial independence. The organization offers training programs for career sectors where women make up 25 percent or less of the workforce.

Jolly said the organization focuses on preparing women to work in careers normally dominated by men because — frankly — these jobs pay better than the service-sector jobs traditionally held by women.

Ronnie Sandler, a carpenter, wanted more women to have livable-wage jobs and launched Vermont Works in 1987. The organization was originally known as Northern New England Tradeswomen.

One way the trades differ from other employment sectors, said Jolly, is that women rarely face the same gender wage gaps as they do in other professions.

Referencing data from Washington, D.C.–based Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), Jolly said that one-third of women work in 13 of the 500 occupations listed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

These 13 occupations — such as administrative assistant, teacher, nurse, or retail cashier — also tend to offer pay at the lower end of the scale.

In 1950, the department listed “secretary” as a job held mostly by women. More than 60 years later, it still is, she said.

A women working in a trade field can earn more than $1.6 million over her working life.

Jolly said that sometimes women veer from the trades — and their compensation — because they’re never exposed to them, either at school or at home.

Andi Waisman, the Brattleboro program coordinator, said that entry-level trades jobs can start at $12 an hour, with employees working their way to $40 an hour, which are good wages for this area.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for a really good career in this business,” she said.

Waisman added that most of the students had developed a passion for construction, building, or working with their hands from their fathers.

Yet women are steered away from the trades. While no one blinks when a young man in high school takes a summer job on a construction site and earns $15 an hour, his female peers are steered toward lower-paying jobs in offices or retail, said Waisman.

Women working in the trades and other nontraditional fields “is still cutting edge and exciting,” said Waisman.

According to a press release from Vermont Works, the boot camps are part of the new Opportunities for Women in Non-Traditional Employment (OWNE) Initiative, led by WOW.

The program aims to connect more than 1,000 low-income women in 15 states to education and job training for high-wage careers in the skilled trades and manufacturing.

Vermont Works, one of 12 partner organizations nationwide selected to receive this funding, will offer programs in policing and corrections, residential and commercial construction, aviation manufacturing, information technology, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related fields.

Shaping lives, defining options

The boot camp has helped shape the plans for Alicia Porter and Carina Reinsel.

Porter said she worked on building projects for multiple local nonprofits, like Turning Point’s new building that’s under renovation on Elm Street.

She has received training in reading blueprints and construction-related math, skills that Porter will use to start her own business.

For Reinsel, the boot camp helped her realize that she loves working with her hands. She enjoyed the day she spent job-shadowing and installing kitchen cabinets.

But, she added, construction isn’t for her. She will likely move into massage therapy.

“This is the class that helped me see that,” she said.

The Brattleboro boot camp participants received a starting foundation in building skills, such as knowing and managing construction; measuring and cutting materials to size; understanding and reading plans; using hand and power tools; and learning the rudiments of building a structure.

Students will also receive their 10-hour certification in basic safety from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), exposure to local professionals and employers, a job shadowing opportunity, and soft-skills training like communication and listening.

Those who find employment after the program will also receive a set of basic tools.

Waisman designed the boot camp’s curriculum after meeting with local employers like Wright Construction, Bread Loaf Corporation, and PCL Civil Constructors.

She asked what skills, tools, or certifications their ideal candidate would possess, and then designed the boot camp around that ideal.

“For the right woman, this is really cool,” said Waisman.

Designing the program

Of the 40 inquiries Waisman received, six women made the final cut.

While the trades pay well, she said, they’re not for everyone. Someone in construction must like working with her hands and working outside in all sorts of weather.

Because the boot camp was designed to move graduates into full-time jobs, women considered for the program also had to seek full-time work, Waisman added.

The application process included an initial interview with Waisman and a second interview with a local employer. This professional determined whether the applicant possessed the raw mettle to be hirable.

To design the boot-camp curriculum, Waisman spent months interviewing local employers from plumbers, to electricians, to auto repair shops, to HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), to contractors, to determine what skills they needed and what kind of construction projects sit on the horizon.

Entry-level, good-paying jobs are what these women should have after this training program, said Waisman.

Waisman anticipates that Vermont Works will offer two training courses in different trade fields each year in the Brattleboro area while the grant lasts. Green building and machining are two potential training areas.

Student Becca Blust, who described the boot camp as “awesome,” said the classes provided an introduction to a variety of skills and direction.

Blust, who has past experience in landscaping, is considering moving into the field of solar installation and green construction.

While Blust said she received little encouragement in school to consider a career in the trades, she worried that the publicity for the boot camp and the students’ work would focus only on women in the fields as some big frontier.

The students’ skills will be just as good or bad as any new construction worker’s, she said.

For Val Annis, construction built her family tree. Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all worked in the building trades. She remembers riding with her dad when he was working on projects.

Still, Annis added, she saw few female construction workers growing up.

Speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter, Annis said that when she lost her position as a one-on-one paraprofessional at the William Center at Austine School, she decided “now is the time” to pursue her love of construction.

The boot camp started the day after the Austine School closed, said Annis, who was born deaf and uses vibrations and visuals.

Annis wants to work with heavy machinery or concrete. She is applying for a job with PCL Civil Constructors. Unafraid of heights, she would love to help build the new Interstate 91 bridge that will span the West River in Brattleboro.

She said some people have expressed concern that being deaf could present barriers for Annis on a job site.

No, she said.

Once a worker dons the ear protection required for job sites, “you’re as deaf as I am.”

“If you have the heart and soul, anyone can do this,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #261 (Wednesday, July 2, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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