Workplace readiness curriculum, an umbrella heading for all the life, job search, and survival skills relevant to aspiring tradeswomen, includes one hour of book club and approximately 30 minutes of classroom training weekly. In addition to the numerous challenges that are unique to or exacerbated by the requirements and culture of the construction industry, a good percentage of women participating in TOP have personal barriers to overcome as well.
Though the program serves women from various walks of life, including those with a firm understanding of the world they seek to enter, the average applicant not only has had little exposure to male-dominated, blue-collar occupations, but limited planned career path work experience. All aspects of the program, then, are designed to bridge this gap and ease the transition to the construction job site. Aerobics and weight lifting help them to prepare physically, math and hands-on training provide the foundation to build technical skills and workplace readiness helps them to take charge of their careers and prepare for the expectations and challenges of apprenticeship programs.
Women have made a lot of progress in the workplace, but in choosing this career path, participants will confront a lot of old assumptions about their roles and capabilities. Co-workers and supervisors may be direct about commonly held views that women aren’t strong enough, tough enough or skilled enough to work in construction and even interviewers may question why a woman would want this type of work or how they will meet their family responsibilities. Moreover, these attitudes may be reflected in work assignments, cooperation from co-workers, opportunities to learn, etc. So not only do women have to meet the ordinary challenges of learning new skills and adapting to a new environment, but they must do so while defending their right to be there.
This is a tall order, because the average woman is already insecure about her skill level and may be questioning herself. Understanding what is “out there” is only half the battle. Maybe more important is how will she respond to these challenges, does she believe in her choice and abilities, can she hold on to that belief in the face of loneliness and harassment, what inner strengths and external support group systems can she draw on to persevere?
Like many workforce development programs, CWIT has struggled with the development of an effective workplace readiness curriculum, moving them beyond knowledge to belief. With the exception of resume development, interviewing, and sexual harassment prevention, which continue to be part of classroom instruction, and budgeting, which is accomplished through individual financial coaching offered by the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, the remainder of workplace readiness topics are currently addressed though a weekly book club offered in partnership with Literature for All of Us. Students read relevant texts, including Hard Hatted Women by Molly Martin, and engage in thoughtful discussion, which is not only more engaging, but by analyzing these texts, communicating their opinions, and even writing poetry, students can build confidence and connection while sharing ideas that will help to prepare them for the challenges they will face in the industry. The program was first piloted three years ago and, based on overwhelmingly positive student evaluations, the program continues to develop this innovative approach to workforce preparation.
In addition to formal instruction, the program prepares students by modeling apprenticeship program requirements while, at the same time, helping students to build the confidence and strategies needed to meet them. Like an apprenticeship program, the program imposes strict attendance requirements and requires that students pass the mid-term and final with a minimum score of 75% and complete all homework assignments to qualify for a certificate. Unlike an apprenticeship program, TOP works to help participants address barriers to meeting these requirements and fosters an environment in which no question is “stupid” and all progress is celebrated.
Built on a foundation of sisterhood and mutual assistance, CWIT encourages students, from the first day of class, to view their classmates as a support network, to share information, to motivate one another and be invested in their collective success. Students complete a networking sheet, sharing their contact information with the class; they identify their address on a wall map and work together to establish car pools; they participate in ice breakers such as human bingo and the yarn exercise; work in pairs and teams to complete work; share information about resources and opportunities; take turns providing the class with a daily affirmation; and work together to plan graduation. Through hands-on instruction, mentorship and engagement in other CWIT activities, students also have the opportunity to learn from, work alongside of and hear the stories of tradeswomen in the field.
This is critical to a successful transition as women are still very likely to be the only one in their class or on their crew and are much more likely to thrive if they understand the environment, have confidence in themselves, have learned strategies for addressing whatever issues arise, and know that they are not alone in the struggle, that they are connected to other women who can relate to and help them overcome challenges on the job site or in the classroom.