Categories: Business

Blue Collar Success

DODIE HARSH WAS SUDDENLY JOBLESS and without any prospects after a company downsize. Staring at the television, she sank into the couch in frustration. Then a local newscaster launched into a segment about an industry-sponsored Women in Trades Career Fair presented by a local nonprofit, Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. Harsh pulled herself off the couch, attended the fair along with more than a thousand other women, and signed up for OTI’s Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class.

photo by Ankur Dholakia

Harsh’s desire for direction is common. When OTI executive director Connie Ashbrook graduated from high school, she says she felt “unconnected,” drifting listlessly in her home state of Ohio before she moved to Portland. Sensing that college wasn’t for her, she looked for a way to work with her hands for a living.

She enrolled in a new trade pre-apprenticeship program at Portland Community College, but the program was short-lived. Years later, Ashbrook would seize the opportunity to empower women, bridging the gap between skill acquisition and steady employment for women through training programs and education in the Portland area.
“I loved being on a crew—seeing each stage of the project,” says Ashbrook, 60, who worked in various trades and was Oregon’s first licensed female elevator constructor before co-founding the nonprofit in 1989. “It’s a chance to be a part of your community, seeing it made better with each completed job.”

OTI has grown significantly in recent years, now operating on a million-dollar budget and employing thirteen people. Because of donors and foundations, the seven-week pre-apprenticeship program, Pathways to Success, is free to women who qualify. For these state-certified classes, women need only have a high school diploma or equivalency degree, drivers license, and clean drug test, before meeting with an orientation counselor, who determines whether the woman is mentally ready and physically able for her chosen career path. Career options include electrician, plumber, carpenter, bricklayer and sheet metal worker.

photo by Ankur Dholakia

Women learn practical skills from female experts and work on their fitness at a neighboring gym. “Each class completes a project for a local nonprofit where we teach them to work to industry standards, so they have practical experience in what is expected,” says Ashbrook. “But the most important tool a trades worker has is the one between their ears.” Of the eighty-seven women who completed the program last year, fifty-seven were hired in their field.

Staff and graduates of the training program work with middle school and high school girls at Building Girls summer camps to teach basic hands-on skills and apprise them of the variety of trades careers.

College isn’t for everyone, explains Ashbrook. “The sooner young women know what career possibilities are out there, the sooner they can set goals,” she says. “We are demystifying the view of the trades as being for men only. Women are often surprised at the jobs they can tackle with a little training.”

photo by Ankur Dholakia

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