Women learn power tools and other skills as part of nonprofit Vermont Works for Women

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Women learn power tools and other skills as part of nonprofit Vermont Works for Women

Women learn power tools as part of nonprofit Vermont Works for Women

Vermont Works for Women is a nonprofit that equips women and girls with the skills to enter male-dominated fields, including construction and trades.

April Fisher, Burlington Free Press

SOUTH BURLINGTON – When Julia Bessy first walked into a workshop held by the nonprofit Vermont Works for Women, she had never picked up a power tool before.

“I actually have a visual impairment. So I cannot see like the average person sees. So coming into this, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. How do I do power tools as a visually impaired person?'” Bessy said.

After a day of practicing with circular saws, jigsaws, power drills, and more, Bessy reached a new conclusion: “It is not nearly as scary as I thought it was.”

The workshop was held on Nov. 11 at the South Burlington workshop of the North Atlantic States Carpenters Union as a training for the nonprofit’s staff, whose jobs are to improve the economic status of women and gender nonconforming people in Vermont.

“We promote economic justice by advocating for gender equity, and also supporting women and girls, and gender expansive adults and youth, through all phases of their career journey,” program manager Paige Ruffner said.

Training for construction jobs

The nonprofit works with women from all walks of life, including young women and girls, older women changing careers, incarcerated women, and more. One area of focus for the organization is expanding access to jobs in construction and the trades.

Of the 7,775 people in Vermont working jobs in installation, maintenance, and repair, only 311 are women, according to a 2019 report by the state agency Vermont Commission on Women. The scant number of women who do have these jobs are paid relatively well, with a median annual income of $63,594, but only comprise 4% of all people in these lucrative occupations.

“Vermont has so much opportunity as far as career pathways coming up, and the more that we can get girls specifically exposed to these, we can move that 4% number,” executive director Rhonni Basden said.

The Trailblazers program by Vermont Works for Women offers 7 weeks of training for women ages 16 and older. Women instructors teach skills in construction, electrical, plumbing, manufacturing, and more.

The program promises a safe, non-judgmental environment for women to learn new skills. At the staff training on Nov. 11, led by Trailblazers instructor Tammy Ellis, participants cheered each other on and applauded when they successfully sawed through a plank of wood or pulled a nail out of a pallet.

“It’s beyond just offering a job or a training program. It really comes down to you need to build supportive environments,” Basden said.

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The exclusion of women from well-paying male-dominated fields, including the trades, is a major reason behind Vermont’s gender pay gap, according to the 2019 report by the Vermont Commission on Women.

Poverty rate of single female householders in Vermont Poverty rate of single male householders in Vermont
Without minor children 11.4% 3.5%
With minor children 36.7% 16%
With minor children under five years old 47.1% 14%
VT poverty rate comparison, by family type (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey—Five Year Estimates, 2013-2017)

The median salary of Vermont women is about $8,000 less than that of men — a 16% difference, according to the 2019 report. This difference is 20% in Chittenden county, 24% in Grand Isle, and over 25% in Orleans county.

Contact April Fisher at amfisher@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AMFisherMedia

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