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Apprenticeship Programs Recruit Women, People Of Color

Courtesy of Kenna May

Rosie the Riveter symbolized the millions of American women who worked construction and industrial jobs during World War II. When men returned home after the war, they took those jobs back. A few generations later, the demographics haven’t changed much.

Now, labor and apprenticeship organizations are increasingly reaching out to women to bring them into traditionally-male occupations.

Right after high school, Michelle Lytle studied culinary arts at Spokane Community College. But after a few years in the food service business, she hadn’t progressed much and decided to try something else. As Lytle searched for a new career through Washington’s WorkSource program, she found a class that introduced her to skilled trades.

“It’s an 11-week program for $25. I was, like, might as well try it out. I’ve got nothing else to lose," Lytle said.

During that 11 weeks, she learned first aid, industrial safety, how to drive a fork lift, how to be a flagger. They were basic introductory skills that she thought would help her in a variety of careers. One thing in particular was attractive.

“The starting pay was way over minimum wage and you’re getting paid to learn. The benefits alone is what I cared about," she said.

It was just a matter of picking one of the apprenticeship programs.

“We ended up touring a lot of the unions and non-union trades and, for me, I learn by being hands on. When we went to the iron workers’ hall, it was the most hands-on experience out of all the other trades. I just liked the brotherhood and the sisterhood of what they had," Lytle said.

She enrolled in a four-year iron worker apprenticeship program that she says she finished in three. She spent a year in a classroom learning the basics and the rest of the time learning on job sites. She’s now a journey-level iron worker, moving from job to job.

“I would like to, eventually, work for one company, but even just being able to go from company-to-company, I’m getting my name out there a little bit more too and I can see which one I like," she said.

Kenna May says Michelle Lytle is the first graduate of SCC’s pre-apprenticeship program to become a journey-level tradesperson. May directs the program. She says apprenticeship programs in Spokane are looking for more women and people of color.

“Diversity is very important in the construction trades and our programs realize that and recognize that. Every effort is being made to really foster women, to help them become successful and to get them living wage careers," May said.

May says word-of-mouth has been the best way to recruit women for apprenticeship programs. But there’s still a long way to go. Lytle says, on most of the jobs she’s worked, she’s been the only female iron worker.

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