Women Find Their Calling In Nontraditional Apprenticeships

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Just a few months after Angel George became a single mom to two pre-teen nephews, COVID-19 hit, bringing with it a kind of chaos that was frightening, now that she was a parent.

“I actually received an email from my company and they told me that they wanted me to finish out the work day and that they would be having to let me go because of COVID, which is kind of like a hard hit, you know?” she said.

She has an undergraduate degree in fine arts that she’s passionate about but it hadn’t led to the kind of stability she needed. After the layoff, she applied for food stamps briefly, and launched an online job search that didn’t seem promising at the time.

“I was a little fearful, but at the same time, you know, it’s kind of like that mom instinct. You know, you have kids to take care of. You do what you gotta do,” said George, 32.

“I just kind of kept in my mind that, ’OK, well, this is an opportunity for you to, obviously, look into something that you can get a career with.”

In between the job search and parenting, as she was able to, George continued remodeling her late mother’s home — redoing floors and water lines, installing sinks, tiling the floor — planning to eventually move in with the boys.

Then a close family friend saw an ad for a pre-apprenticeship in construction offered through the nonprofit West Virginia Women Work’s Step Up for Women program.

“She said, ‘Angel, you need to look at this program. You’re great with your hands and fixing things. And this program is basically, it advocates for women to look into getting trade jobs and they help you with resources for it and it’s free.’”

Angel George was about to join an increasing number of career-minded women pursuing nontraditional fields, including more than 2,000 women in West Virginia alone.

“I was like, you know, ‘Here it’s a free program. It’s going to help me get a job.’ And that right there, to me, it was almost sold instantly because, you know, I didn’t really have the means of paying for school because I was on a budget as is, with two kids on unemployment.”

The pre-apprenticeship was an intensive focus on trade jobs that women traditionally don’t consider. The cohort of 10 women attended classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for 12 weeks. And George was able to continue collecting unemployment during that time.

“We learned everything from plumbing, welding, construction ... electrician. ... Basically all these different types of trades they touched at least on the beginning basis of each one,” she said.

She had helped family members with construction projects over the years, “But I really was more interested in the plumbing and the welding aspect. Welding really struck my interest for sure,” she said.

She felt her own confidence growing, and watched as her fellow students became more sure of their abilities.

“A lot of women who walked in on the program didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she said. “But by the time they left the program, they would shine, you know? They’d glow.”

It helped that she considered herself a hard worker — and figured the work would be physically demanding for all of her co-workers.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, you’re carrying 20-foot pipes up ladders to put in nine-foot ceilings, you know? I mean, regardless, it’s physically demanding for either sex,” she said.

Once the pre-apprenticeship program had ended, she asked for an opportunity to shadow a couple of plumbing and pipe fitting journeymen — and ended up in front of Mary Beth Johnson, the first female president of West Virginia Heating & Plumbing in the company’s more than 130-year history.

“There’s been a couple of women that worked out of here, but it’s not typical,” said Johnson.

Because the training is so extensive — and expensive — for new hires, she was thrilled to give George an opportunity to be sure it was the right career track.

“So then after she shadowed and decided, ‘This is something I do want to pursue,’ then she put in an application for the apprenticeship” through the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 625.

Over five years of paid work, apprentices complete 1,100 classroom hours and 8,500 hours in the field.

“Basically when they come out there at the end, they have the equivalent of a college degree. ... What they do is a work of art and it’s very complicated ... so they need all the training they can possibly get.”

The plumbers and pipefitters apprenticeship is a registered apprenticeship through the U.S. Department of Labor, which has seen a 218% increase in women apprentices in recent years.

“On the average, the starting salary of an apprenticeship is $70,000 a year. ... 94% of the apprentices that complete an apprenticeship program retain long-term employment,” said Karen Wade, the apprenticeship and training representative for the program and one of the first women to enter the industry a few decades ago.

“Apprenticeship gave me my opportunity and it was a great opportunity. I loved working in the industry and also it has made me very passionate in helping to pave the way for other women to get that same opportunity,” she said.

Even today, said Angel George, with role models to follow, “The face of this type of field is mainly men.

“I guess my goal is for women not to feel like just because it’s got a man’s face to it doesn’t mean that you can’t break that ground.

“I’m the only woman on the worksite — that’s out of plumbers, duct workers, painters, construction workers. They’ve all treated me like a sister there. They don’t treat me differently.”

She sees herself as a role model — not just for other women who might consider the same career track. But for two future men who are watching her examples.

“I just feel like as an individual, whether I’m a woman or not, if I have the drive to do it, then you can make it happen. ... And that’s what I wanted to show my kids, is that regardless of whether we were put in a bad situation because of COVID, just because I’m a woman does not mean I can’t go out and make a better situation for myself and for them.”