Magazine article USA TODAY

Breaking out of the Pink-Collar Ghetto: Nontraditional Jobs for Women

Magazine article USA TODAY

Breaking out of the Pink-Collar Ghetto: Nontraditional Jobs for Women

Article excerpt

By entering - and succeeding - in trades traditionally reserved for men, women not only are lifting their families out of poverty, but also are giving their children wider opportunities.

During her first day on the job, Sandy Durham's boss told her to watch out for rattlesnakes. "He wasn't kidding," says Durham, who has seen several while driving a water truck for a road construction crew in southwestern Montana. There are other, more common hazards, such as the heavy, serpentine hose that sometimes flies off the water pump or the sharp inclines of the mountain roads, but Durham is not fazed. "I love the construction business and I feel I'm a very capable driver."

What's more, she earns $19.01 an hour, nearly four times what she made in previous jobs harvesting potatoes, waiting on tables, or flipping hamburgers. The extra income has enabled her to buy new school clothes for her two daughters, repair her trailer home, and stop worrying about where their next meal is coming from.

In the spring of 1992, Durham did not even know that jobs like hers were open to women. "I quit school to get married," she notes. "I just planned on being a housewife and mother." When she and her husband separated after 14 years of marriage, she went on public assistance to survive. Then, her welfare case worker told her about a new program to train women for jobs traditionally dominated by men, but now gradually opening to women. Having driven her husband's truck a few times, she thought the truck-driving course would be right for her. Three months later, she passed the test for a commercial driver's license. It proved to be her ticket out of the pink-collar ghetto.

Durham began her move out of poverty with the help of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). Working closely with local organizations and businesses, WOW gives technical assistance to job-training programs for low-income women in Milwaukee, Wis., and Hartford, Conn., as well as throughout Montana. Based in Washington, D.C., WOW has been active in female employment issues for more than 25 years. Its nontraditional training project aims to expand their access to dozens of lucrative industries once closed to them. Thanks to new Federal legislation, job-training programs are required to prepare women for higher-paying, nontraditional jobs. They are using WOW'S project as a model.

According to June Zeitlin, deputy director of the Rights and Social Justice program at the Ford Foundation, which has granted WOW $675,000, that project comes at an opportune time. "There is a renewed interest in welfare reform and recognition that options for getting women out of poverty are limited. This has led policymakers to focus on training for nontraditional employment as a way of providing women with a real route to self-sufficiency."

Although females have been making inroads into the legal, medical, and business professions, they have been less successful in breaking into the world of truck drivers, carpenters, or welders - jobs that pay 30% more than secretarial work or waitressing. Though women make up nearly half of the workforce, they account for just nine percent of those in the skilled trades and less than two percent in the high-paying construction industry.

Three-quarters of working women have low-paying jobs with little security, few benefits, and scant room for advancement. Yet, nearly half are their family's primary breadwinner. It is not surprising that one of every five working women in the U.S. is poor, and one of every four children grows up in poverty.

Government programs have not always done enough to help women get higher-paying jobs. The thousands of females trained each year under the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) and Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) programs usually are directed into positions that pay little more than the minimum wage. Convinced that systemic change was needed, WOW began working with local JTPA and JOBS offices to devise ways to introduce more women to high-paying nontraditional careers. …

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