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Nonprofit program helps West Virginia women work toward nontraditional careers

MORGANTOWN — Since 2000, West Virginia Women Work (WVWW) has helped women in the Mountain State break into nontraditional careers by giving them the training and skills needed to thrive in a male-dominated environment.

The nonprofit offers a U.S. Department of Labor quality pre-apprenticeship program called Step Up for Women Construction along with other resources and opportunities. The primary focus of the organization’s activities has been to help women explore, train and secure employment in nontraditional occupations, especially the skilled trades.

Women who participate in WVWW’s Step-Up for Women will attend a tuition-free, 12-week course and learn soft skills like interviewing, communications, budgeting, online presence and resume building, and then cycle through hands-on skilled trades training.

“Women typically are raised to do one thing, men are typically raised to do another,” said Carol Phillips, WVWW executive director.  “So a lot of women don’t get the experience with hand tools, power tools – they aren’t really taught about those career options.

“Our goal is to help them explore all these skilled trades, career options and also get tools in their hand so when they leave here, they can do entry level work, they can enter into apprenticeship programs,” she said. 

At the end of the 12-week program, participating women will have gained some general knowledge of electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, welding and even a little masonry.

“The goal is to place them on a new career and the reason we stick with non-traditional careers is, you know, we can’t close the gender wage gap,” Phillips said. “But, if you place a woman in a male dominated role, those pay more. So we try to steer clear of nursing, early childhood education, those types of jobs that are lower paying. That way these women are economically self-sufficient.”

2019 WVWW graduate Amber Legg said after graduation she was hired as a deckhand at Marathon Petroleum Corporation in their Marine Division and is currently in their River Engineering program. 

“Although I worked several non-traditional jobs before attending the program, WVWW gave me the extra confidence I needed to be successful in my current career,” Legg said.  “This program offers you support not only during class, but after graduation as well.  The program helps women find opportunities that they may otherwise believe are unavailable to them.”

WVWW hosts two Step-Up training programs per year at both their Morgantown and Charleston locations, one in the spring and one in the fall.  The average class size between both locations is around 25, but since their inception, Phillips said over 1,000 West Virginia women have completed the program.

“Historically, we’ve seen about an 80% graduation rate and about an 80% job placement rate,” she said.  “So 80% of the women that come through these programs get a career in the skilled trades or just a non-traditional field for women and get that higher pay.  

“I think our average for last cohort was about $18.91 an hour. So it’s not too bad. And I think when we added it all up, it was over $420,000 more annually in salary these graduates were able to put back into the economy and the community.”

For those who might not be ready for the full 12-week program or who just need to brush up on basic budgeting, getting resumes together, and other soft skills, WVWW recently launched a mentorship program called Partner Up. The organization also hopes to launch an online-based Skill Up program focusing on those soft skills for women who don’t live near a WVWW office.

“That way we can reach people way out in rural areas, you know, if you’re Wetzel County or Pocahontas County, you can log in online and we will help you with communication, budgeting skills, interviewing, and help you explore careers and offer some salary transparency for those jobs and how to get certifications.”

Phillips said they hope to launch the Skill Up program sometime this summer, but interested women are able to sign up now for the Partner Up mentorship program.  Women who enroll will be assigned a mentor from WVWW who they will meet with monthly, either in person or online, and work with them to network, build connections, identify barriers, set education goals, and explore job possibilities.  WVWW staff will also schedule short, weekly check-ins with mentees to keep their plan moving forward and empower them in their success.

Phillips said what really makes the program different is the diverse women who choose to participate.

“We are for all,” she said.  “We see folks that have college degrees, maybe been a school teacher, and they’re over it and they want to make some money and they come here. We get folks that are working on their GED, people suffering from substance use disorder and working their way through that.” 

As a nonprofit, WVWW strives to not only improve the lives of the women in its programs, but also the community at large.

“We built blessing boxes and installed those throughout the community, and now we do monthly checks, making sure there’s still goodies in there for the folks,” Phillips said. 

They also partnered with the Marion County 4-H Camp, which had the materials available, but needed labor for some much-needed repairs on a few porches and decks.

“We want to make sure that we really are here for social profit,” Phillips said.  “I want the community to benefit and want the women to benefit. I want other organizations to benefit. Just making sure that our hands-on training could benefit some other organizations, that’s what we want to do, that’s what keeps us going on.”

As a nonprofit, WVWW relies heavily on grants and donations and Phillips said she is shocked at how many businesses have stepped up to support their organization through physical donations like safety glasses, laptops and training, as well as a willingness to hire their graduates after program completion.

Phillips said to stay tuned for launch dates for the online Skill Up class and the return of the Step Up for Women Manufacturing program in Charleston.

The next Step Up for Women Construction class will start at the end of February and applications are no longer being taken. But those interested in participating in the fall session, or to sign up for the ongoing Partner Up mentorship program, can find information on how to apply online at  Donations can also be made through the website.