October was a hard month for Angela Porter. She was unemployed, and the bank foreclosed on the house she shared with her sister.
Now it's a new year, and Porter feels her luck has changed.
She is living with her daughter in St. Paul, has a new $8-an-hour job at Burger King and recently began training that she hopes will launch a new career in construction and finally give her financial stability.
"When I heard about the training, I jumped on it. I didn't want to miss this opportunity. It's very exciting," she said. "When I finish this training, I'd like to get into plumbing and make $20 to $30 an hour. I want to be able to earn money to get my own apartment."
Porter, 46, is one of 206 Minnesota women to benefit from a new statewide effort to find, train, hire and shoehorn more women into construction, manufacturing, robotics, trucking and other well-paying industries traditionally occupied by men. The state's new Women and High-Wage, High-Demand, Nontraditional Jobs Grant Program recently issued $475,000 to Goodwill-Easter Seals and six other colleges and nonprofits focused on helping women with low incomes.
Porter, who joined the Goodwill-Easter Seals program last Monday, is thrilled. Goodwill-Easter Seals in St. Paul will use its $72,450 state grant to train Porter and 34 other women to become carpenters, concrete masons, painters and construction workers. The 12-week certification program pairs students with employment coaches, contractors and OSHA safety trainers.
"It's really hands-on, so it prepares them for the field. It's empowering," said Goodwill employment director Becky Brink, noting that the women learn to read blueprints, measure and build foundations, walls and roofs.
The statewide effort is part of the Women's Economic Security Act that Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law in May.
Besides Goodwill-Easter Seals, the YWCA of St. Paul and the White Earth Indian Reservation each received $72,450 to teach women to drive commercial trucks and get their commercial licenses.
Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis received $72,450 to help women earn associate's degrees in construction, computers and manufacturing. In Rochester, the Workforce Development Center will spend $71,000 certifying women in welding and computer controlled machining (CNC).
Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the grants target low-wage women or those over age 50 who want in on some of Minnesota's highest-growth industries. The new program should slim the gender wage gap, where women earn just 80 cents for every $1 a man earns.
"Today, about 40 percent of the gender pay gap is attributed to women doing different work from men and the lower value placed on female-dominated work," Clark Sieben said. "[Many of the] greatest growth and highest paying fields are typically dominated by men. … Women are not well represented in these occupations."
To change that, armies of educators and students are getting to work. The pounding was deafening Tuesday at Goodwill's construction training facility in St. Paul, where two licensed contractors guided the chaos on the second day of class.
Porter, St. Paul resident McKenzie Reynolds and 10 other construction newbies banged hammers and cranked crowbars to disassemble the roofs, siding and walls from two "demonstration" houses. The students will rebuild those same houses this week.
"At this point, it's just important to get them comfortable using hand and power tools," said coach Anna Wright. "They are here in the [construction lab] for six weeks and then go onto the actual building site, where they build real houses."
In between, trainees will meet with employment counselors, visit bricklayers and other firms looking for long-term apprentices. They also will select a specialty trade to study further.
Crystal resident LeeAnne Stevens, 32, and a single mother of four, can't wait. She will spend the next six weeks learning to pour concrete and tie rebar, thanks to the state grant. The training opportunity came at the right time, said Stevens, a former Electrolux refrigerator assembler who was forced to leave her job and go on welfare when her child care fell through. But now she has steady help from her mother and is ready to learn new skills.
"I wanted something that would pay me enough that I would not have to depend on anyone else. So I came here and said, 'Let's do this,' " Stevens said.
Such training is needed, said Sarah Richards, CEO of Jones Metal Products Inc., the Mankato factory that machines parts for nuclear submarines, nuclear power plants and electric generators.
Richards is delighted the state is helping Rochester and Dunwoody women learn machining, robotics, welding and other skills badly needed by factories like hers. "There is a tremendous gender gap," she said.
"We are 100 percent men in our front-line manufacturing operations," Richards said. "A lot of women gravitate to the quality positions but they are just not CNC [computerized robot] operators, or welders or machinists. They are not the ones with the welding torch in their hand," even though welding and machining jobs often pay $18 to $30 an hour.
"There are still societal stereotypes that keep girls from pursuing some fields that naturally pique their interest."
Richards hopes to change that. This month, she's hiring her first female machinist intern from South Central College.
"I am so excited she is here. I want her to work here full time," Richards said. "There is a lot of good going on around this new [statewide] effort. If we could just get a good core group of women started here, then I think that things start to take off."