It harkens back to the strength, fortitude and feminism of World War II icons such as Rosie the Riveter, but it’s the overriding sentiment that Cindie Alwood consistently hears today: “I never thought I could do this. But I can.”
Alwood, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, said she has repeatedly heard some variation of that statement in reference to the Women In Skilled Trades (WIST) program. “We all have the ability to do whatever we want to do,” said Alwood. “We just need someone to show us how.”
This summer, the WIST Apprenticeship Readiness Program saw its first class of graduates – six area women ages 19 through 40 have completed the 13-week course that provides them with the tools, knowledge and abilities to immediately begin an apprenticeship position in any skilled trades occupation.
WIST is an alliance between the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, Capital Area Michigan Works!, Michigan State University, Granger Construction, the Associated General Contractors of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Labor. The students attended classes Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the apprenticeship as well as an all-day site visit Saturdays for hands-on training at locations such as the expansive Operating Engineers Local 324 Training Center in Livingston County’s Howell Township.
While students were learning the essential hands-on knowledge, they were also being educated on everything from first aid and sexual harassment awareness to Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations and building
“Now that it’s up and running, I am even more energized than I was before,” said Carol Cool, project manager at MSU’s Infrastructure Planning and Facilities. “The women of the first (graduating class) are amazing and reaffirm our decision to create WIST every day.”
WIST was brought to life by Cool and Tori Menold, business process manager at Granger Construction.
“We saw a need for the program because there is a shortage of skilled trades workers, and 77 percent of all women work in only 20 of the 440-plus occupations,” Cool said. “Tori and I wanted to do something to support women in our area, and construction is what we know. Skilled trades are work a woman can do. She only needs to know the option is available and have a little help getting over the barriers set up against her.”
Funded entirely through donations, the Apprenticeship Readiness Program – both its classes as well as the clothing and equipment needed – was provided free to participants; however, students had to be selected for the program through an interview process that examined everything from problem-solving skills to how they handle challenges.
“We looked at what employers look for in employees,” Alwood said. “We can train someone, but we can’t make them a self-starter.”
The interview process also served a dual purpose. Although the program was designed to provide women with the essential skills needed for a trades position, the interview also brought to light areas
of need that remained to be addressed in the program’s design.
According to Alwood, basic construction math was a skill that was lacking across the board, so that raised another area of the program that required additional attention. Essentially, the initial year of WIST was a learning curve for both students as well as the program’s organizers; however, with the inaugural year behind, the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing is looking to continue the program in the future. The demand, Alwood noted, is certainly there from both employers as well as prospective students.
WIST fits snuggly into the central mission of the women’s center. While the nonprofit offers a wide range of programs and services since it was founded in 2005, a primary focus is employment – specifically reducing barriers to economic sufficiency for women, Alwood explained.
“We are really focused on helping women prepare for the workforce,” Alwood said.
Helping them prepare comes in a variety of forms: It could be a skills program, it could mean support programs, it could require counseling.
The goal of the women’s center is to be a resource to help women overcome whatever physical, psychological or emotional obstacles stand in their way.
“I think it’s really important that people in our community reach out when they’re feeling a
certain way,” Alwood said. “We’re here. There are no barriers to our services. There is always help, and there is always hope. If you need help, we will help you. And if we can’t, we will find someone who can.”