When Vermont Works For Women was first created 25 years ago, it was known as Northern New England Tradeswomen.
In its first year, it helped about 30 women who were interested in becoming carpenters, plumbers, electricians and construction workers.
Today the Northern Vermont organization serves about 900 adult and young women each year.
As it marks its silver anniversary Vermont Works For Women is celebrating its success and also highlighting what remains to be done.
The organization’s mission statement has changed, but fundamentally it’s always been about creating liveable wage jobs for women. Mostly that’s meant helping women break into trades such as carpentry, plumbing and other construction fields.
But lately it’s come to include information technology and even food services, an area traditionally open to women. Still, even in food service, the goal is to break down barriers and teach some basic life skills.
Melissa Corbin overseas Vermont Works For Women’s two year old Fresh Food Program, which trains women in food service work as they turn out hundreds of meals a day for Chittenden County childcare centers.
"They’re using food service as the skills that they’re learning but a lot of it is really acting as a sheltered worksite to explain to these women what it feels like to actually work in a real job that has contracts and is operating as a business. So, it is different than some of the non-traditional work that we do with women," Corbin explains.
Vermont Works For Women’s 16 different programs cater to women from many different backgrounds. For 25 year old single mother Betsy White, getting into the Fresh Food Program was a lifeline.
"I was homeless, living in hotels or couch-surfing with my six year old. No income. I was on state assistance," she says.
White is a graduate – and now an employee – of the Fresh Food Program.
She’s clearly a success story – and Vermont Works For Women says there have been many over the years.
That’s reflected in the people trained, and the programs created to train them. It’s reflected in the growth of the organization to 21 employees and a $1.6 million budget and the shift over the years from a public funded non-profit to one that sustains itself on private money and fees for services.
But there’s one stubborn number that hasn’t changed. The percentage of women occupying jobs in the construction trades hasn’t budged. Nationally it stands at less than 3 percent; unchanged from 30 years ago.
There aren’t specific state figures but Vermont Works For Women Executive Director Tiffany Bluemle says there’s no reason to believe they’d be dramatically different.
"Have we changed the face of construction since our inception? No," says Bluemle. "In fact though more women are going into the field, as many or leaving."
The low percentage of women also extends to engineering and other technical fields.
With the current emphasis in Vermont on job training and creating a work force with the technical skills employers need, Bluemle says it only makes sense to try to attract more women.
"We shoot ourselves in the foot if we don’t appeal to that 50 percent of the population," she argues.
Bluemle says there’s never been a strong commitment by government to increasing the number of women in the trades and technical fields.
Without more support from government and businesses she says it’s hard to break down stereotypes and create a critical mass of women in non-traditional fields who will serve as role models for the next generation.
It’s the pitch she’s making to try to bend the curve for women in skilled jobs as Vermont Works For Women looks beyond its first 25 years.