Tovah Penning knows hard work.

Four years ago, at age 19, Penning got pregnant. She moved back home with her family in Blaine and worked full-time as a McDonald’s manager for $9.50 an hour while her mom cared for baby Roxy.

Her shifts were erratic, sometimes starting at 4:30 a.m., sometimes ending at 2 a.m. Day and night, Penning dreamed of a different kind of life.

“It started with me just being unhappy and knowing it wasn’t going to be better or different if I didn’t do something,” she said.

Her sister-in-law suggested a radiography program at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. Penning applied, but didn’t get selected.

It might have been the luckiest break of her life.

Two weeks ago, 23-year-old Penning started the second year of a two-year scholarship program at Dunwoody called Women in Technical Careers (WITC), which she learned about when investigating radiography. She’s studying heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC.

Last summer, Penning interned at Standard Heating and Air Conditioning, where she was the company’s first female installer. She’ll likely make $20 an hour as soon as she graduates, regardless of who hires her — and lots of people want to.

“HVAC,” Penning said with a smile, sitting in a Dunwoody classroom not far from the lab where she built an entire heating system in her first year of study. “Never in a million years.”

In a sea of grim media stories about punishing college debt and a dearth of jobs in many fields, Dunwoody’s WITC program is a notably sunny exception, turning the tide for a small but growing number of women choosing technical careers. The need is great.

Today nationwide, just 1.1 percent of automotive service technicians, 2.4 percent of machinists, 3 percent of electricians and 8 percent of construction managers are female.

The initiative, funded by the Minneapolis Foundation, Hearst Foundation, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and many others, seeks to increase the number of female students at Dunwoody from 14 percent in 2015 to 20 percent by 2020.

Penning was among the first 22 low-income women accepted into the program in 2015. The second class of 20 started Aug. 22. Students’ ages range from 18 to 52. Thirty-eight percent are women of color; 36 percent are single mothers. Their average hourly wage before starting is $12. The average starting salary of a Dunwoody grad: $40,000. The job placement rate: 98.5 percent.

Women’s enrollment coordinator Maggie Whitman was drawn to WITC by the program’s “ability to empower women, and bring them economic stability.”

She added, “Dunwoody is a direct path to a middle-class life.”

She talks up the program during visits to women’s service organizations and in high schools, where she talks to students who might make good candidates. (They must have a high school diploma or GED to attend Dunwoody.)

Kay Phillips, Dunwoody board of trustees chairwoman, said that because the program is so new, it’s essential to let women know that traditionally male jobs are available to them. Sometimes the recruiting effort extends beyond the students to their families.

She recalled one student who told her family about her career path as a welder. “Welding? Her family didn’t even know what that was,” said Phillips, part owner of ATEK, an Eden Prairie-based product development and manufacturing company.

Phillips gives a shout-out to Whitman for her high school outreach. “We need to make those connections,” she said, “and then help these women develop tools and skills to complete their education and get into a great career.”

Achieving balance

WITC participants are given a $20,000 scholarship, which covers about half the tuition. Federal and state aid is available, as are child-care stipends.

“A lot of mothers say they are doing this for their kids,” Whitman said.

Penning is grateful to her mom for being Roxy’s willing caregiver. She’s also grateful that as a full-time student, she has a normal schedule, usually starting classes at 7:30 a.m. and ending around 2 p.m. Now she’s home before dinner. Now she can wake up on weekends and spend quality time with her little girl. Now she has an exciting future.

She’s candid, though, that she was anything but excited on her first day at Dunwoody. “Omigod. It was definitely the most terrifying thing, besides being pregnant,” she said.

She entered her first lab, the only female student, knowing nothing but the difference between a Phillips and a flathead screwdriver. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and said, ‘You are doing this.’

“I was not going to quit,” Penning said. “And it got easier, little by little.”

Instructor Christopher Weaver recalls taking Penning to Home Depot to buy a tool bag. A former Standard Heating employee, he helped her secure her summer gig there.

“The level of drive and ambition she has,” he said. “The first time I met her, she crushed my hand. I knew she was going to do just fine.”

Working with passion

Melysia Cha, 21, also is a rising star. At Eagan High School, Cha figured that she’d take the traditional post-high school route of a four-year university degree, maybe in public relations, “then jump into a job for the rest of my life.”

Her plans changed when she got a part-time receptionist job during high school with Langer Construction. “I didn’t know construction was so complex,” Cha said.

After high school, she attended Inver Hills Community College for two years and worked for a tile company before starting at Dunwoody in its construction management program.

After her first year with WITC, Cha spent her summer at McGough Construction. She loves it there and continues to work for McGough 40 hours a week, taking 15 credits of classes at night.

The support system at Dunwoody is the main reason she’s so invested, Cha said. “People are just as excited for you as you are for yourself.”

Like Penning, Cha didn’t always feel that way.

“Being a woman in this industry and also identifying as a person of color, I was internally conflicted, self-conscious of who I was and who I was supposed to be,” Cha said. “I did not see a lot of people that looked like me, and, while that could be empowering and encouraging, it was scary.”

Now she’s confident and goal-oriented. Cha’s dream is to become a project manager on sustainable architectural projects.

“The money is the bonus,” she said. “I really want to do something I’m passionate about.”

Penning agrees. “It’s challenging, but I feel fully capable,” she said.

“At first, it was about getting through the day,” she said. “Now, I’m working toward being independent.”