Apprenticeships help women enter blue collar trades

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Since Rosie the Riveter was phased out of her factory job after her patriotic World War II duty, few women have had the opportunity to do skilled craftwork. Until recent years, sex and age discrimination have already barred them.

Now the women's liberation movement, new government rules and regulations, and apprenticeship programs in the erstwhile "male territory" trades are beginning to change the employment scene.

For the past several years, women have been pushing back into blue collar, nontraditional trades, establishing a beachhead for themselves as auto mechanics , welders, machinists, tool and die makers, electricians, and construction workers.

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Today several federal laws prohibit sex descrimination in apprenticeship and require affirmative action for women in areas of the labor force in which they were underutilized. This means that trained women craft workers are now able to command from $6 to $12 an hour in many male-dominated fields.

A recent success story, in which women proved their capacity for doing strenuous outdoor work under hardship conditions, involved the building of the Alaska pipeline. More than 2,500 women (11 percent of the work force on the project) labored in all kinds of weather to help complete the pipeline.

Today apprenticeships are enabling women to move into better-paying jobs. These operate, as they have for thousands of years, to ensure the orderly transfer of skills from one group or generation to another. Most often now the apprentice process is a formal arrangement including employers, unions, vocational and technical schools, and individuals who want to learn skilled craftworks.

Many corporations, including the Bell Telephone System, have worked out their own affirmative-action programs and have set goals and objectives for hiring and advancing women and minorities. Bell has set up its own system for training women linemen, mechanics, truck drivers, installers, the repair technicians.

The US Labor Department, through its Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, is helping many other companies set up apprenticeship programs and is informing women of their existence.

Alexis M. Herman, director of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau, says, "Apprenticeship is an option we would like to make available to more women, because they need greater access to higher-paying jobs. Learning a skilled craft is certainly one good route out of poverty."

The Labor Department's revised revised regulations on equal opportunity for women and minorities in apprenticeship and in the construction industry should help reduce sex discrimination in apprenticeship programs and sex-role stereotyping in vocational education programs.

Ruth Robinson Hernandez, of the Women's Bureau Division of Information, reports that there are 10,674 women in the department's registered apprenticeship programs.These women, she says, are learning to be barbers (a highly favored field), carpenters, glaziers, floor coverers, roofers, bookbinders, and electricians. One lone woman apprentice is learning what it takes to become an ornamental iron worker.

"What it takes" entails far more, usually, than intelligence, manual dexterity, physical strength, and determination to hang on despite sometimes despairing odds. It also takes the ability to cope with a far rougher work environment, tough language, sometimes harassment and teasing from male coworkers, and the feeling of isolation that comes from being the only woman on the job site.

An action group in New York City called United Tradeswomen has come into existence chiefly to offer emotional support and advice to women working as plumbers, construction workers, auto mechanics, and in other trades. "It would be very difficult for women to stay in the trades without this kind of support," says Lois Ross, a member of the group's steering committee.

Her group, she explains, not only helps strengthen women in their positions but assists in observing the federal regulations regarding affirmative action that were determined in May, 1978.

"It is very, very difficult for a women to get into an apprenticeship program in New York," Miss Ross explained. "I have seen them wait on line for a week before being accepted or declining for a program. There are hundreds of women waiting for each learn-as-you-earn apprenticeship offered, but there are also hundreds of men waiting for the same opportunity."

In manufacturing or shop trades, and in transportation, communications, and public utilities industries, apprenticeship programs are operated in the company plant. Applicants apply directly to the employer or the company personnel office. In the construction trades the apprenticeship application process varies from city to city and from trade to trade. Programs are operated by committees composed equally of union representatives and employers who hire workers in the particular trades.

Once accepted, an apprentice goes through a probationary period, then moves through on-the-job training, combined with up to 2,000 hours of classroom work. "The programs are not for everyone," Mrs. Hernandez explains."Most of them require a high school education, or equivalent. Many women applicants have completed one or two years of college before they opt for working with their hands in some craft skill. Once trained, they can become highly competent workers who can expect consistent employment?"

In the next two years, the Labor Department plans to continue to encourage companies to set up apprenticeship programs and develop guidelines for administering them. It also expects to reach out to women's groups that can be helpful in advancing the apprenticeship idea.

Interested women should look in the white pages of their local telephone books, under the listing "US Government" and the subtitle "Department of Labor," to locate regional offices or representatives in their areas. The bureau of Apprenticeship and Training maintains regional offices in Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Kansas City, Mo.; Denver; San Francisco; and Seattle.

A new pamphlet entitled "A Woman's Guide to Apprenticeship" is available free from the women's Bureau of the US Department of Labor, Washington, D.C. 20213, as is a pamphlet entitled "Search for a job in the Construction Industry." Include a self-addressed mailing label.

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