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Program helps local women learn trades

Training can lead to blue-collar jobs

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published: February 12, 2013, 4:00pm
2 Photos
Bree Smith repairs welding equipment at Gunderson in Portland.
Bree Smith repairs welding equipment at Gunderson in Portland. Photo Gallery

Not long ago, Bree Smith found herself stuck in a pit of a job, rapidly going nowhere on a bottom-rung paycheck.

But the 28-year-old Salmon Creek resident possessed the nerve and the grit and the raw talent to jump to something better.

All she needed was a springboard.

She got it in the form of a pre-apprenticeship program run by Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to helping women gain success in the trades through education, leadership and mentorship services.

The program put Smith through math-building, muscle-sculpting and résumé-sharpening exercises, as well as on-the-job training. All for free.

Now, Smith works as a maintenance mechanic at the Gunderson rail car and barge manufacturing facility in Portland.

“It’s a great job,” she said. “I love it.”

And Oregon Tradeswomen’s move to help women get jobs in the world of blue-collar work doesn’t stop at Smith.

The organization is gearing up to bring more Southwest Washington women like her into the trades. To that end, it has forged a partnership with Vancouver-based Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council to begin recruiting women into the program.

Fueling Oregon Tradeswomen’s mission is a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor aimed at linking women in Washington and Oregon to apprenticeships. Not all of the details of the recruitment project have been worked out, said Connie Ashbrook, executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen.

But it’s an important step in the nonprofit’s drive to knock down barriers to women seeking industrial jobs, Ashbrook said.

One challenge to overcome is the “image in society that you have to be a big, brawny guy to be a successful construction worker,” she said. And part of plowing through that barrier is letting women know about the opportunities that are available to them. “Many women don’t really know about apprenticeships and don’t know how to get started,” Ashbrook said.

‘It really prepares you’

In Clark County, an informational session for a pre-apprenticeship program will be held Thursday at Vancouver WorkSource, which also is a partner in the initiative advanced by Oregon Tradeswomen and the Workforce Development Council. The session is from 2 to 4 p.m. at 5411 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Suite 15. More informational sessions are in the offing, Ashbrook said, and women may go online — http://www.tradeswomen.net — or call 503-335-8200 to learn more about when those meetings will occur.

“We do a broad overview of the different apprenticeship programs and blue-collar professions,” Ashbrook said of the sessions.

Topics covered include the enrollment process and program expectations.

Smith will tell you all about it.

During a social event a couple years ago, she said, a friend of hers told her about Oregon Tradeswomen. Intrigued, Smith looked up the group. By March 2012, she was attending one of the nonprofit’s pre-apprenticeship classes.

The program enabled her to brush up on her math skills. It ran her through a fitness regimen to prepare her for the steely work of an industrial workplace.

The program led her to rebuild her résumé. It prepared her to carry confidence into a prospective employer’s interview room.

It equipped her to pursue a dream she’s held since she was a child.

Smith said she remembers when she was 6 or 7 years old watching her dad work on a big bulldozer.

“I had a welding hood on,” she said. “I grew up playing in the shop around the heavy equipment. I loved the welding equipment.”

Today, she said she feels lucky to have a well-paying job — with good benefits — at Gunderson, especially in light of a still-weak economy. She fixes everything from welding guns to switches on train tracks.

And she’s a champion of Oregon Tradeswomen, the group that helped translate her inner drive into gainful employment.

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“It’s excellent,” she said. “It really prepares you.”

It supports you, too, Smith said. “Everybody will walk up and help you. It’s an extremely supportive environment. No discrimination whatsoever.”

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.

Columbian Port & Economy Reporter