The Oregon Tradeswomen held a career fair this weekend to encourage women to consider apprenticeships in the trades, including carpentry, plumbing, electric work, masonry, and power line work.
Although these remain male-dominated fields, women who have made their way into the trades say they offer a living wage without going into debt earning a college degree. "For diverse women and men of color, going into the trades is a way to move out of poverty and into the middle class," said Connie Ashbrook, the director of Oregon Tradeswoman. Ashbrook spent 17 years working in construction, primarily as an elevator builder.
There were lots of hands-on demonstrations at the career fair. It wrapped up Saturday at an electrical union training center in northeast Portland. Girls learned how to work a jackhammer and how to bend a piece of sheet metal at a right angle, and practiced welding on a simulator.
At a booth, Amber McCoy encouraged women to sign up for an apprenticeship program with the Pacific Northwest Council of Carpenters. The union has set a goal of having women make up 20% of its new apprentices. McCoy said becoming a carpenter's apprentice in 2004 was her ticket out of homelessness.
"Ten years later I own two homes, I own my car outright. I'm able to travel the country and the world. So it absolutely completely changed my life. Greatest thing I ever did," she said.
Hourly wages in the trades range from $12 for an unskilled apprentice to $38 for an experienced union worker. Several tradeswomen said the work is a good fit for women who like working outdoors and building with their hands, and can handle sticking out among male colleagues.
Women make up about 6 percent of Oregon's electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and metal workers, about twice the national average. Connie Ashbrook says high schools focus on preparing students for college, and many young women have relatively few opportunities to learn about work in the trades. "Many boys and men learn about trades careers from their family, friends, and neighbors. So we are doing that for girls and women," she said.
This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.