At 35 years old, Myla Odom of Anchorage was at a career crossroads. After years of administrative work, she wanted to explore options for more hands-on physical work.
It's a similar story for Caren Moss, 40, who also made the transition from office work to trade skills.
"Construction was something I knew I wanted to try, something I knew I would enjoy instead of something just to pay the bills," Odom said.
Moss has an accounting background and entered the program because she always liked working with her hands and saw this as a way to get more into physical work rather than accounting.
Both women signed up for the Alaska Works Partnership's Women in the Trades program. They were there mostly to get an introduction to construction-related trades, such as carpentry or electrical work. This way they could explore new future career possibilities in order to keep their options open.
The program just graduated its final class of 2011. Ten of the 11 women who entered the program graduated after three weeks of construction training and another week of truck driving instruction.
Women spend three to four weeks in classes to get an introduction into the world of construction. They get hands-on training in various trade skills like basic construction, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and painting. As daily life in such trade fields mandates, they also get the right math and science instruction plus physical training.
Equipment and vehicle training is part of the program, as is first aid and CPR certification. There is even training with unions like the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This allowed them to receive certain certifications, which adds to their resumes when they go job hunting.
Women in the Trades doesn't confine the students to lectures. Students train with seasoned laborers to build simple structures. Odom said having such professionals as training partners was invaluable in helping shape what the students got out of the classes.
Of course, all of this is all preparatory work. The idea is for these women to have the basic knowledge for learning more in on an actual job site if they choose. There is an employment assistance program to prep students to apply for such jobs or apprenticeships to start careers in the trades where they can learn more.
"Obviously you can't be a carpenter in a week," said Alexis Cowell of AWP Apprenticeship Outreach.
Cowell said the program is designed as an introduction so it can give an idea of what a trade would entail so that women can decide for themselves if it's the right career for them.
Students vary from those just starting out to those who have been in the workforce for years but want to explore other fields. Many are also single mothers who are looking for ways to make ends meet.
The women in the program vary in ages and backgrounds. For example, Odom's class, which was the one just completed, had women ranging from ages 20 to 47.
Odom joined Women in The Trades to help her decide what path to go down since she's never felt fulfilled behind a desk. She'd taken college classes and worked previously in secretarial and office work. She now works as a parts professional, inspecting vehicle engines for repair needs at Cummins Northwest.
"I'm more of a doer than a paper pusher," she said.
She enjoys her job now but didn't want to eliminate a chance to expand future paths that could consist of physical work.
In the program, she got a full hands-on sample of what the physical work on a construction site would be like. She received safety and electrical training through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and IBEW. She even trained on a forklift and completed the written portion for her commercial driver's license.
Odom said it was a great experience and the hands-on exposure was something she might not have gotten to otherwise. She also felt a sense of accomplishment from the different, physical tasks.
"I know what I like to do and what I enjoy, and being able to make that decision as a career life choice is important," she said. "I want to make sure I don't fall into the same thing."
Moss had graduated in accounting and worked in that field in Alaska and Wisconsin for renewable energy education organizations. She later decided to switch paths into weatherization and electrical work and is now a project coordinator with Alaska Building Science Network. She does weatherization for community-owned buildings and energy efficient lighting retrofits in villages as part of this job.
"I was interested in doing something else but was kind of done with carpentry. It was a passion to do weatherization and still have carpentry skills," she said.
She certainly got those skills. In the program she developed her carpentry skills by building a wall and getting some steel and electrical work training. She also got certified in first aid and CPR, as well as the OSHA 10 class and commercial driver's license permitting.
"They do more than tell us what to so. We did a lot of it," Moss said.
While satisfied with her job, she also thought Women in the Trades could give her ideas for any future aspirations. She is interested in pursuing an IBEW apprenticeship.
Women in The Trades started when the Fairbanks Building and Construction Trades Council asked AWP to sponsor such a training program in 2003 to help bring more women into industry jobs and apprenticeships. The training was soon employed in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
However, AWP was unable to continue funding it annually. AWP Director Mike Andrews said there was never specific funding for the program but AWP was able to keep it going for many years through various funds cobbled together. This continued until 2010, when the program was included as part of the Alaska Construction Academies.
"So now it has a home," Andrews said.
Classes are still scheduled as they can be. They continue to go through Alaska Construction Academies.
This last one was in Anchorage in May. Cowell said the next one will hopefully take place in Fairbanks but may be done in the fall.
Several graduates have gone on to apprenticeships or direct employment. Andrews said the new Fort Wainwright Hospital and Delta Ground Based Missile System hired program graduates.
These projects helped earned the program the Exemplary Public Interest Contribution award from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in 2003. The award was for exemplary partnerships in getting women involved in such federal construction projects.
"That training was a great success," Andrews said.
Data from the Alaska Department of Workforce Development states that 14 percent of the construction industry was made up of women in 2010. Women made up 40 percent of trade, transportation and utilities jobs that year.
These numbers have varied over the years but not by much. Labor Department data shows that women made up 10 percent of construction laborers in 2003. This data set also shows women making 2.5 percent of carpenters and 3.6 percent of electricians. In 1997, women made up 3.8 percent of carpenters, 9.5 percent of construction laborers and 3.9 percent of electricians.
Women also made less on average than men in these areas. They made 67 percent of men's wages on average for construction and 57 percent of men's earnings in trade, transportation and retail combined.
Cowell said there are definitely still sexism issues in construction and other trades and that women often have to go the extra mile to prove themselves. Women also have to show they can handle the physicality demanded in such jobs. Another goal of Women in the Trades is to encourage more women to explore the fields so they realize this and can tackle such challenges.
"From what I've seen it's a man's workplace so that itself is a barrier there," Cowell said.
Jonathan Grass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.