Many people think of construction or manufacturing jobs being held by men, but with the help of a nonprofit founded in 2000—West Virginia Women Work—women can now receive free apprenticeships to help them train and secure employment in nontraditional occupations.
The organization strives to help women in West Virginia earn a living wage. Currently, the Construction and Skilled Trades Pre-Apprenticeship is only available in Morgantown, Charleston, and Wheeling. The Advanced Manufacturing Pre-Apprenticeship is located in Huntington and Bridgeport (WV).
Melinda Perron is the Program Coordinator for the Huntington site. She recruits the students, teaches employment “soft skills” classes, provides case management, makes connections with area manufacturers and community organizations, and manages matters in the tri-state area.
“We run tuition-free accelerated training programs to economically empower women,” she pointed out. “The skilled instructors give the students hands-on training with manufacturing machines including mills and lathes. They also learn blueprint reading, OSHA safety, shop math, and measurement-inspection skills. We also have guest speakers and go on tours of area manufacturers.”
The program in Huntington runs 10-11 weeks depending on the season, and offers three days per week from 9am-5pm. The days of the week can vary from cohort to cohort. In addition to training, the students receive the equipment needed to find a job, including steel-toe boots and work clothes. Students also receive $0.12 per mile gas reimbursement to get to and from class.
“We build connections with companies throughout WV and nearby areas,” said Perron. “Eighty percent or more of our students find jobs in their chosen areas. I believe the last I heard, women made up about twenty-six percent of manufacturing, but even within that number, most of the women are doing ‘lower-level’ jobs.”
Don’t Wait to Apply
Some of the basic guidelines for women to apply for the apprenticeships are: to be over 18, be a high school graduate with a GED, have access to reliable transportation (preferably a personal vehicle), and possess a valid driver’s license. Apply well ahead of time, as students are accepted on a rolling basis. Applications are due approximately May 15 and December 15.
There is limited space in the classes, so they also weigh other factors, like work history and experience, when selecting the most qualified applicants. Within the manufacturing field, specifically, it is very difficult for someone with a recent felony to find work, though the construction industry is more forgiving. All of the students must be drug free.
The program is currently being run through the Apprenticeship Works grant the Robert C. Byrd Institute received from the U.S. Department of Labor. The funding from that grant will run out once Perron’s current class finishes. They also receive funding from state and federal resources based on their low-income students’ needs and eligibility—as well as donations from individuals, businesses, and unions who support their mission.
“Our students are generally twenty-five to fifty years old, with no experience,” Perron explained. “I’ve had women with four year-plus degrees, and women who recently got their GEDs. The most important factor in success for our graduates is attitude and drive. If you have a great attitude, and you’re out making opportunities for yourself, you will be very successful.”
— Editor’s Note: though this program isn’t currently active in the Eastern Panhandle, local women are still encouraged to apply. It simply might involve some travel.By Robin Murphy