Women find their calling in nontraditional apprenticeships | Life & Arts

Just a few months after Angel George became a single mother to two young nephews, COVID-19 struck, bringing with it a kind of chaos that was terrifying now that she was a parent.

“I actually got an email from my company and they told me they wanted me to finish the workday and they should let me go because of COVID, which is kind of a hard hit, you know?” she said.

She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts that she is passionate about, but it hasn’t resulted in the stability she needed. After being fired, she briefly asked for food stamps and started an online job search that didn’t look promising at the time.

“I was a little scared, but at the same time, you know, it’s kind of like that maternal instinct. You know, you have kids to take care of. You do what you have to do, ”said George, 32.

“I just kept in my mind that, ‘OK, well, this is an opportunity for you to, of course, explore something that will help you get into a career.”


Angel George cleans the end of a copper pipe and prepares it to be added to the plumbing.

In between looking for work and being a parent, George continued to remodel her late mother’s home – reinstalling floors and water pipes, installing sinks, tiling the floor – and eventually planned to move the boys in.

Then a close family friend saw an ad for a construction pre-internship offered through the nonprofit West Virginia Women Work’s Step Up for Women program.

‘She said,’ Angel, you have to watch this show. You are great with your hands and fixing things. And this program is basically, it advocates that women look into finding jobs in commerce and they help you with resources for it and it’s free. ”

Angel George was about to join an increasing number of career-minded women pursuing nontraditional fields, including more than 2,000 women in West Virginia alone.

‘I was like, you know,’ here’s a free program. It’s going to help me get a job. And that there, to me, it was sold almost immediately, you know, I didn’t really have the means to pay for school because I was on a certain budget, with two kids out of work. “

The pre-stage was an intensive focus on trade jobs that women traditionally don’t consider. The cohort of 10 women attended classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 12 weeks. And George could continue to collect unemployment during that time.

“We have learned everything from plumbing, welding, construction … electrician. … Basically all these different types of transactions that they touched on at least at the beginning of each, ”she said.

She had helped family members with construction projects over the years. “But I was really more interested in the plumbing and welding aspect. Welding has certainly piqued my interest, ”she said.

She felt her own confidence grow and saw how her fellow students became more confident of their abilities.

“Many of the women who entered the program were not very confident,” she said. But by the time they left the program, they’d be shining, you know? They would glow. “

It helped that she considered herself a hard worker – and thought the job would be physically demanding for all of her colleagues.

“Whether you’re a man or a woman, you carry 6-meter high pipes over ladders to place three-meter ceilings, you know? I mean, anyway, it’s physically demanding on both sexes, ”she said.

When the pre-internship program ended, she asked for a chance to be able to shade a few plumbing and pipe fittings – and for Mary Beth Johnson, West Virginia Heating & Plumbing’s first female president, ended up in the company more than 130 years of history.

“There are a few women who have worked here, but it’s not typical,” Johnson said.


Pipe fitter apprentice Angel George (left) discusses plans for next job with West Virginia Heating & Plumbing President Mary Beth Johnson.

Because the training is so comprehensive – and expensive – for new hires, she loved giving George the opportunity to make sure this was the right career path.

So after she shadowed and decided, ‘This is something I want to pursue,’ she applied for apprenticeships “through the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 625.

Over five years of paid work, students complete 1,100 hours of class and 8,500 hours in the field.

“When they come out at the end, they actually have the equivalent of a college education. … what they do is a work of art and it is very complicated … so they need all the training they can get. “

The Plumbers and Pipefitters Internship is a registered internship through the United States Department of Labor, which has seen a 218% increase in the number of female apprentices in recent years.

“On average, the starting salary for an internship is $ 70,000 per year. … 94% of apprentices who complete an apprenticeship program maintain long-term employment, ”said Karen Wade, the apprenticeship and training representative for the program and one of the first women to join the industry a few decades ago.

“Apprenticeships gave me my chance and it was a great opportunity. I have loved working in the industry and it has also made me very passionate about paving the way for other women to have that same opportunity, ”she said.

Even today, said Angel George, with role models to follow, “The face of this type of field is mostly men.


Angel George (second from right) sits at lunch with other union fitters.

‘I think my goal is for women not to feel like it just has a man’s face, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break that ground.

‘I’m the only woman on the yard – there are no more plumbers, canal workers, painters, construction workers. They all treated me like a sister there. They don’t treat me differently. “

She sees herself as a role model – not just to other women who might be considering the same career path. But for two future men who look to her examples.

“I just feel like an individual, whether I’m a woman or not, if I have the drive to do it, then you can make it happen. … and that’s what I wanted to show my kids is that whether or not we’ve been put in a bad situation by COVID just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t go out and find a better situation creating for myself and for them. “

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