CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK)—A free program in our area is giving women an opportunity to get the training they need to land higher-paying jobs. The West Virginia Women Work Step Up for Women program prepares women for careers in the skilled trades. 

When we first met Wendy Martinez and Erin Carr they were two weeks into the Step Up for Women Construction Pre-Apprenticeship program. On that day they were learning how to operate a forklift. 

“How to get on it, what all of the controls do,” Carr explained about the lesson that day. “We were able to take it out for a little spin and pick up some pallets to see what is going on and learn how to use the controls and figure out how to drive it and stuff like that.” 

Carr and Martinez started the course not knowing much about that type of work. They are hoping what they learn in the program will build a path to a better life for them and their children. Martinez saw an advertisement for the program on Facebook. 

“I’m at home and I’m like there’s got to be more than this,” Martinez said. “That is something I’ve learned, there is always something more. You can always go forward. I could go back too. But this is a big forward for me.”

Martinez struggled with addiction for a decade. During that time, she lost everything. She lived in a tent at one point. She’s been in recovery now for 14 months. The opportunity to be in the program is one she doesn’t take lightly. 

“I’m working a job but it’s just not quite there, it is not quite what I want it to be,” she said. “I’d like to soar.”

The 12-week program is free to any woman over 18. They provide training, tools and safety equipment. They also help women network and find employment and help to build their confidence. 

“I think as someone who hasn’t had any experience with any of this stuff, it is nice to learn in an environment that makes you feel comfortable so that when we do enter the workforce we can go in with that confidence. We don’t have to be scared about going into a mainly man-dominated work field and it is nice to learn in an environment where you are not intimidated,” Carr said.  

Carol Phillips is the Executive Director of West Virginia Women Work. She says the goal is for graduates of the program to find full-time employment earning no less than $15 an hour. 

“I think women historically are pushed into more caregiving careers or maybe artistic careers that don’t pay as much,” Phillips said. “With a job in the skilled trades, a woman can earn a living that makes her economically independent. It is better for her family and the community. They are the jobs that are here. They are the jobs employers need you for.” 

According to Associated Builders and Contractors, nationally 1 in 4 construction workers are older than 55 and retirements will likely continue to put pressure on the construction workforce. At the same time the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is funneling money to communities leaving plenty of work and plenty of jobs. 

“I’ve seen women come from not a success ladder job, you can’t progress, you are going to be in the same position all of the time making the same money and just getting them to a position where you can, even if you are starting at an entry-level position, work your way up to get to those higher wage positions,” said Keisha Hines, Program Coordinator for WV Women Work. 

Of the women enrolled in the Step Up for Women Construction program in 2022, 30% were single parents, 27% were head of household and 60% received benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid and housing subsidies. 

Based on Federal Poverty Guidelines, 63% of students enrolled were below the poverty line based on household size. Seventy percent of the women enrolled were unemployed and the average hourly wage for the 30% who were employed was $11.71. 

The average hourly wage for graduates last year was $18.92. 

“It is the difference in being in housing or being in a home. It is the difference from taking the bus to a car. It is the difference in worrying about which bill I’m paying this month to my bills are paid,” Martinez said. 

In early April we caught up with Martinez, Carr, and their classmates again. They were learning about carpentry and even got their hands on some power tools. 

Their instructor patiently guided them along the way. 
“She compared it to starting a new car,” Carr explained. “You know at first you don’t know exactly how it is going to go but the more you do it the more you get comfortable with it. Today was the first day, so it is a learning curve. We are learning about it. I think that the more that we do it, the more hands-on time that we get with the tools I think everybody is going to be a lot more comfortable with it.” 

While their first try might not be perfect, they applaud one another’s successes. 

“It is really nice to have other women showing you that you don’t have to be scared to do something new,” Carr said.  

We dropped in for another session as the students gave welding a try. The class was a little smaller this time because some of the students had already found jobs. 
Their experiences so far are helping them see that they can do anything. 

“Women I think, we are playing 4D chess. I think women intuitively are thinking ahead about not only how are they going to do this work, how are they going to do it safely, how are they going to apply it, what other types of careers can they use it in and I think that is one of the strengths that maybe we don’t get enough credit for,” Phillips said. 

With just a few weeks left before graduation, Martinez is just as enthusiastic as the day she started. 

“Me and my son have a joke. I go to school four days a week, he goes to school 5 days a week and every morning he’s like ‘are you going to school’ I’m like yea and he’s like ‘if you go to school, I’ll go to school’ and that is our thing together. We are getting it you know,” Martinez said.  She is soaking in all of the knowledge and experience she can. The Step Up For Women program is helping her not just with her career but also with her sobriety. 

“I’m more confident. I feel more engaged. I feel more goal-oriented. I feel like I could use a meeting every now and then of course but I feel really good in my recovery for keeping at it, for saying this is where I want to go, and this is what I want to do and not looking back.” 

The program has women challenging and supporting one another as they tap into their potential. 

“In America, we have a culture of celebrating a lot of things for women like bridal showers, baby showers and wedding showers. I want to see more women just applauding each other, lifting each other up and celebrating everything. You finished a novel, you graduated from Step Up Pre-Apprenticeship, you got your OSHA 10 Certification, you finished that bachelor’s degree you’ve been working on for 10 years. I think it is time we see more happy hours and things like that for women as well,” Phillips said. 
Carr and Martinez are set to graduate in May. 

For more information about the next Step Up For Women Program click here. 

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