By Marcus Constantino
Charleston Daily Mail, W.Va.
Jackie Rea spent much of her life making cakes at Kroger stores. But after a recent divorce and relocation, Rea, 50, decided to trade in her icing spatula for a concrete finishing float and start a new career in the construction industry.
The West Virginia Women Work organization has given Rea hands-on training in her trade, which has landed her an apprenticeship with the Plasterers, Cement Masons and Shop Hands Local 926. Rea and the 11 other women in West Virginia Women Work’s Step Up For Women program in the Kanawha Valley have been building a miniature firehouse at Charleston’s “Safety City” in recent weeks as they finish up the free 11-week program.
“I can’t do a sit-down job,” Rea said Thursday at the job site at Safety City, her hands and clothes splattered and stained with red concrete dye. “I’m tall for a girl and stronger — most of the time — but I just like getting out and doing things.”
Though every woman’s story is different, they all come into the Step Up for Women program with the same goal — to get a job and start a career in a trade.
Misty Mayville, job developer and program coordinator for West Virginia Women Work, said the program has helped hundreds of women get training and earn jobs in trades that have historically been dominated by men.
“For some of them, it’s just absolutely changed their lives,” Mayville said. “We’ve had people that lived off of government assistance and then got jobs — usually, it’s a union job — and they’ve went from living off of government assistance to making $19 or $20 per hour. You can’t do that in too many other fields of work.”
Mayville said around 36 students are accepted into the Step Up For Women program statewide each spring and fall — a dozen students each at West Virginia Women Work’s Charleston, Martinsburg and Morgantown training facilities. Students learn carpentry, electrical wiring and plumbing, and work on real projects for other nonprofit organizations as part of the state’s only pre-apprenticeship program for women.
Mayville said students earn necessary certifications and licenses along the way, and around 80 percent of students find a job in their trade either during or after the program.
“We’ve had ladies that didn’t know what different sized nails there were, or how to hammer, which is fine. That’s what we want,” Mayville said. “This isn’t a class for people that are experienced. This is for people trying to get into the industry that have no experience. We take them from the lowest grade and we build their skill set up.”
Emily Wolfe, 34, of St. Albans, enrolled in the training program after her search for a job turned up empty. Wolfe was working full-time as a home health care worker and had some previous experience in constructing sets for theater productions, but she wanted to expand upon her carpentry skills to find better-paying employment.
“I’ve done a lot of stuff,” Wolfe said. “But with this, you’re active, you create something every day. You’re never going to go in and have the same day twice, and that’s big. You don’t get bored.
“We’re more or less a bunch of ladies who don’t know what we want to do, but at the end of (the program), we’re a bunch of women who can now work. That’s what (Mayville) has done for us and it’s wonderful.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Step Up For Women program gives students the chance to hone their skills without having to endure harassment or discrimination because of their gender. Wolfe recalled an instance when she was carrying a piece of plywood down a set of stairs while building a set for a production and the director took the sheet of wood from her, told her it was “too heavy” and gave it to a pre-teen boy to carry.
“There’s not a lot of opportunity where you don’t feel like you’re constantly trying to earn your place,” Wolfe said. “You go into a class with a bunch of other men, and you can’t do things as good as everyone else, you have to do it at least twice as good before anyone takes you seriously.”
Wolfe said she feels like the program has empowered her to chase the career of her choice. Because of her work in the program, Wolfe said she just started a new job at the Gestamp plant in South Charleston.
Mayville said the 12 Kanawha Valley students in the spring Step Up for Women program will graduate Friday, May 29 at 6 p.m. at the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center at 1506 Kanawha Boulevard West. She said the program is now accepting applications for students for the fall program, which begins in August. Tuition for the program is paid for by grants and donations.
Rea said the program isn’t for everyone — students must be physically fit and able to lift heavy items — but those who are dedicated and willing to learn can walk away with a new career that pays much better than retail or waitressing.
“Don’t ever think that you can’t do something, even when you’re older or younger,” Rea said. “Just try out what you want. You gotta follow your dreams a little bit, anyway.”