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With a shortage of skilled trade workers—and college costs rising—Totally Trades! encourages girls in Maine to explore the trades

“Our employers are screaming for skilled workers,” says Nancy Weed, director of the Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick. “But our sending schools aren’t encouraging technical education.”

Weed runs one of 27 facilities within the Maine Department of Education that serve high schools around the state. Depending on the facility, these programs can include building trades, electricity, metal fabrication, automotive technology, medical occupations, truck driving, criminal justice, firefighting, computer fields and much more. Students receive a trade or technical credential from work completed in their junior and senior years of high school.

An emphasis on attending college has created a shortage of skilled trade workers who receive training from career and technical education programs and apprenticeships. For many 15- and 16-year-olds in Maine preparing to start their junior year of high school, it will be a year of standardized tests and college visits. According to the Mitchell Institute’s 2015 “Trends in College-Going” study, 57 percent of  high school graduates in 2006 attended college that fall. In 2014 that percentage jumped to 62. But there is another path that students and the adults who guide them often overlook—a path that incurs little to no debt and could mean direct entry into a well-paying job with advancement opportunities.

Totally Trades! participants get a taste of the trades with hands-on workshops—like learning to drive an excavator, building a toolbox from wood or hand-cutting their names into a sheet of steel—during the one-day conferences, which are geared towards girls in seventh and eighth grades. Last school year, eight Totally Trades! conferences served 772 students in grades 8 through 10. Photo courtesy Totally Trades!

“There’s a lack of understanding about CTE (career and technical education) that feeds misconceptions,” says Weed. “People think that if you go to ‘voc’ [a vocational school] that you don’t go to college, that you just need to know how to pound nails, that people in ‘voc’ aren’t smart, that anyone can just be an automotive engineer without the understanding of the rigorous requirements including math and science. Those things just aren’t true.”

Weed and other CTE directors take their myth-busting presentations to schools around Maine, talking to sophomores about the benefits of non-traditional careers and hosting Q&A panels of current CTE students, both male and female.

And it’s a necessary effort. To find new future workers, employers are encouraging non-traditional applicants—womNew Ventures Maine, an organization that offers tuition-free programs for career, business and financial education, starts earlier by offering single-day Totally Trades! conferences for seventh- and eighth-grade girls. Participants take two one-hour, hands-on workshops that might include learning to drive an excavator, building a toolbox from wood or hand-cutting one’s name into a sheet of steel with plasma-cutting implements.  Last school year, eight Totally Trades! conferences served 772 students in grades 8 through 10.

“We say, if the girls can be on their own (because we still do believe that sometimes there’s that gender bias)…they’ll try these things without thinking about what the boys are saying,” says Jean Dempster, New Ventures regional manager for central Maine.

Photo courtesy Totally Trades!

Administered by the University of Maine at Augusta, New Ventures Maine offers Totally Trades! with the support of local businesses including Hardypond Construction, Cianbro, the Cynthia McMullin Fund for Women of the Maine Community Foundation, FedEx, Spectrum Communications and the community colleges. Dempster explains, “Employers participate in these conferences because they need workers. For them, it’s really a recruiting event, even if the girls are two or three years from being able to take a full-time job.”

Deirdre Wadsworth, president of Hardypond Construction, says the skilled trade shortage is having a big impact on the industry. “I keep a core group of employees and we add laborers through temp agencies or students and interns to help out during the summer busy period,” she says. “But I can’t grow my company due to a lack of skilled employable people. We are also finding that every subcontractor we use is in the same position and often is so busy and under-staffed that they can’t fulfill their obligations, which makes scheduling difficult and hard on my employees.”

Wadsworth took the college pathway and studied economics at the University of Denver followed by an MBA in sustainability. When she decided being a project manager was the job for her, she came back to her father’s company, Hardypond. In 2015 she became president of the company, yet she started out driving heavy equipment and working in the office when she was young before moving on to understanding design drawings, overseeing safety and estimating project costs as a LEEDS-certified professional.

The Totally Trades! conferences feature female speakers like Wadsworth and other women who have found success in the trades.

“This is an opportunity for these girls to see that there are women in the trades…women who have gone through trade school [who can] talk to the girls about the challenges of being the only girl in the class,” says Dempster. “Even though it’s worth it, there are still some barriers in an all-male environment.”

Many argue technical credentials are a better return on investment than four-year college as the trades can be a solid path to employment and high-paying jobs. “It depends on the college degree,” says Weed from Region 10 Technical School. “You can get a college degree in sociology and be working at McDonald’s or you can study a skilled trade and go work for Cianbro at $50- or $60,000 a year.”

Photo courtesy Totally Trades!

As Weed mentioned earlier, students can do both CTE and go to college. “We find that the collegiate admissions programs come to us because our students, who have gone through CTE, have skills and experience that other applicants don’t have. If you have your CNA, that helps you get into an RN program.”

“All of us have to keep that learning going because things change so fast,” Dempster agrees. “You might get an entry-level job as an auto technician working at a tire-changing place or garage, but to move up in salary you need to get a master technician credential. More education either at a traditional college or for a recognized credential does lead to more salary over time.”

Dempster points out that wages in Maine sometimes don’t support the college loans that people take on, which can keep students from reaching their goals. Students who graduate from CTEs can do so with no debt and they can use their trade to work their way through higher education with employers who will help fund the professional development required to advance, whether that’s an apprenticeship, a two-year community college program or a four-year program.

Attracting girls and young women won’t fix the skilled trade shortage quickly. “We can train or do apprentice programs, but to become a skilled worker, you need experience either through formal education or time on the job learning,” says Wadsworth. “Because unemployment is so low, unless someone, possibly a female, wants to leave their current profession and get into the trades, I don’t see any short-term solutions.”

Still, Wadsworth encourages Totally Trades! participants to “be brave,” and to “try new opportunities, to stand up and ask questions and to learn about the careers that don’t interest them as well as the ones that do.”

Anna E. Jordan (annaejordan.com) is a writer and editor. Follow her at @annawritedraw for news about #kidlit, rowing and politics.

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