West Virginia Women Work Organization Faces Unsure Future
West Virginia Women Work is an organization that wants to help women in the state achieve economic self-sufficiency. They’ve been at it for 15 years. About 1000 women are better for it, so far. But the organization runs on a shoestring budget, with only five full-time staff to organize six 11-week courses each year. It’s now looking to the state to stay afloat.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 50 percent of women in West Virginia are holding down full-time jobs - it’s the lowest labor force participation for women in the country. Women in the state also face the largest gender pay gap, earning just 67 cents for every dollar men earn, according to that same report. But one nonprofit has identified where and how women can step up. West Virginia Women Work trains women in electrical, plumbing, and construction trades--all jobs dominated by men that pay higher wages.
A Female Pipefitter
Alyssa Aliff is from Charleston. This year she was accepted into the plumbers and pipefitters union, Local 625. She says West Virginia Women Work made it possible.
“My entire life I’ve kind of known that I was here to build or create something with my hands. I guess the opportunity never presented itself for a female to go into the construction field. It may sound naive, but I really didn’t know this opportunity was out there.”
She was managing a restaurant when she found out about an 11-week, tuition-free course the organization offers called Step Up. Soon after she graduated the program she landed a job working for the contractor who was teaching the construction classes, then she applied and was accepted into the apprentice program. .
“I’m 28, if someone would have told me ten years ago that this was an option, I would have been well on my way. I didn’t know this opportunity was there.”
In the union’s apprentice program she can explore various aspects of the plumbing and pipefitting trade and work toward licenses and certifications that promise higher wages.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, only 50 percent of women in West Virginia are holding down full-time jobs - it’s the lowest labor force participation for women in the country. Women also face the largest gender pay gap earning just 67 cents for every dollar men earn, according to that same report. The good news might be that data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the pay gap is much narrower in the construction industry where women earn about 93 percent of what men make.
A Step Up for Women
“We take women in. We put them through hands-on carpentry, electrical, plumbing. We combine that with classroom topics on job-readiness and math remediation. Then we put them into jobs,” said deputy director of WV Women Work Kristina Szczyrbak.
Szczyrbak came to work in the organization a decade ago as an Americorp vista.
“When I came here it wasn’t with the intention of working for Step Up for women, but in one of the first classes there was a woman who said, ‘I’m not happy in my life, in my marriage and I haven’t worked for several years, and I have two children. So the reason I would take this class is because I want to give my children a better life and I want to be able to do it myself.’” Szczyrbak says it still gives her goosebumps, recalling how well her student did ten years ago. The woman got a job, and a divorce, and came back to the next class in a new car to encourage other women in the program.
“It just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Szczyrbak said. “Who wakes up one day and says I want to completely change my life for the better and be able to do it all by myself and then six months later they’re there? That’s completely insane.”
Szczyrbak says she has one story after the next of helping women obtain economic self sufficiency. That’s the organization’s mission. Founded in 2000, Szczyrbak reports the Step Up For Women program has maintained an 80 percent placement rate over the years. She estimates about 1000 women have come through the organization. They average between 80 and 90 graduates each year from three sites in the state: Morgantown, Charleston, and Martinsburg.
“We don’t restrict those sites by county or where you live. It’s just if you're able to get there, and willing to travel, then you can come and take the class. We try to offset travel a little bit with things like a transportation reimbursement. We pay application fees, we pay all of the licensing fees, we provide all of the books, we pay for a gym membership. We really try to make it so that all the students need to do to be able to participate is get there.”
The program is maintained through grants. They have to reapply for them each year. Organizers say it's becoming more difficult to secure those grants and they're looking to the state now, for appropriations that will sustain the organization and the five full-time staff members it takes to run the programs.
Board member and long-time supporter, delegate Barbara Fleischauer is hoping the state will step in to help the organization survive.
“We are creating taxpayers as opposed to low-income people who need help or who need assistance. That’s where many of these women are before they get these jobs. Once they get these jobs they’re contributing to society and being good role models to their children.”