Equity, Empowerment, & Excellence
Story by: BENJAMIN LERNER
Photography courtesy: VWW
When Ronnie Sandler founded the Step Up women’s vocational training program in St. Johnsbury, Vermont in 1985, her goal was simple: She wanted to teach Vermont’s female workers valuable trade skills to set them up for success in traditionally male-dominated industries. With the help of the Vermont Department of Education, she used the knowledge she had acquired during her carpentry career to create a comprehensive and holistic technical education course.
Two years after launching Step Up, Ronnie partnered with two other Vermont-based women to form the Northern New England Trades Women’s association (NNETW) in 1987. Over the next two decades, NNETW facilitated employment readiness programs for women throughout the state of Vermont, as well as cross-state collaborative efforts with bordering counties in New Hampshire.
In 2007, NNETW rebranded itself as Vermont Works for Women (VWW). Operating as a nonprofit organization, VWW currently offers a variety of programs and services that enable women and gender non-conforming persons to learn valuable work skills and self-advocacy strategies.
VWW’s “Rosie’s Girls” program introduces middle school girls and gender non-conforming youth to nontraditional career fields through a series of immersive handson learning experiences. A socioemotionally integrative “Power Skills” component helps participants build self-confidence in a safe and supportive setting. A specialized career exploration event known as “Girl’s Tech” brings middle school-aged participants who express interest in technology-oriented trades together to learn from industry professionals. The program centers around trades such as automotive engineering, welding, and computer science.
Events such as the “Women Can Do” career-immersion conference create unique educational platforms where high school aged girls and gender non-conforming youth can experience a variety of different trades and professions firsthand. Female professionals from a wide spectrum of nontraditional fields including skilled trades and STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) serve as inspiring mentors and instructors for conference attendees. According to VWW Executive Director Rhoni Basden, some of the instructors are former program participants themselves.
Rhoni says that she has “seen participants that started out in the ‘Rosie’s Girls’ program come back and become great mentors. A lot of women who have gone through some of our adult programs have also gotten involved in our youth programs as a mentor. It works both ways. We’re working hard to make those pathways even easier as we move forward.”
VWW’s diverse array of programs for adult women help to prepare female Vermonters for the challenges that they face while searching for sustainable employment. The “Trailblazers” program gives women and gender non-conforming persons interested in pursuing a career in the fields of energy or construction the opportunity to develop specialized job skills and attain valuable certifications. Over the course of a 10-week training program, attendees receive hands-on training from National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) certified female instructors, as well as OSHA-10 certification and NCCER core curriculum certification.
Program Manager Missy Mackin says that one of the best things about the “Trailblazers” program is “a mentoring system where women who have worked in the trades in Vermont for a long time connect with the participants. We also have a job fair towards the end of the program where we connect employers with participants who are looking for jobs. We provide support to our participants from the moment that they first enter the program through the job search process and beyond. I like to say that ‘Trailblazers’ is the program that keeps on giving. The women who graduate from our program can come back to us at any time for whatever services they need. We call companies to see if they are looking for any potential workers. Sometimes the companies call us to see if we have anyone available to work an open position. It’s been incredibly encouraging to see companies of all sizes contact us to offer our program participants opportunities for employment. It’s a promising sign of positive change.”
VWW also affects positive change through the Incarcerated Women’s Program, which prepares institutionalized women in Vermont to rejoin the workforce upon release. The program provides crucial work opportunities for female inmates through an innovatively-structured employment outreach program.
Program Manager Heather Newcomb finds that “Incarcerated women seeking to return to the workforce face a series of frustratingly-difficult logistical challenges. This is largely due to the lack of communication between various state-run social programs and correctional bureaucracies. The barriers created by this lack of effective communication prevent incarcerated women from effectively accessing the programs that are most needed upon release. There are many challenges with agency coordination. Because of this, we spend a good amount of time helping the women we work with navigate the resources that are available to them. We work with employers to provide support to their employees who have a history of criminal justice involvement. Most of the employers that we work with are progressively-minded businesses such as BCorp certified corporations. Some employers will accept applications for employment prior to release. We have had employers come to the facility and perform interviews. One even extended a job offer prior to an inmate’s release. It’s incredible to see these women being given opportunities, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to reform the state correctional system to better meet their needs.”
Vermont Works for Women also works to close the pay gap between male and female workers in Vermont through its involvement in the “Change the Story” initiative. Partnering with the Vermont Women’s Fund and the Vermont Commission on Women, VWW collaborates with policymakers, philanthropists, and key community partners to fast-track the economic progress of working women in Vermont.
According to a study in a 2019 “Women, Work, and Wages” report published by Change the Story, “Nearly 4 out of 10 Vermont women working full-time do not earn enough to meet basic living expenses for a single individual as defined by Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office. Women’s full-time earnings in Vermont are lower than men’s in every county, at every education level, and at every age. The differences are even more pronounced for women of color and those living with disabilities. Median annual income for women working full-time is $41,146, about $8,000 less than the median annual salary of men ($49,027). This means that women’s earnings are a fraction of men’s—in this case, 84%—translating into a loss (or wage gap) of 16 cents to every dollar earned.”
The determined advocacy work of Vermont Works for Women plays an invaluable role in the advancement of women’s rights in Vermont, and the success of their efforts is dependent on the continued support of Vermonters from all corners of the state. Rhoni Basden insists that every community member has the power to make an important difference with their words and actions. Basden urges, “Now is the time to advocate for women’s rights. It’s time to recognize when women’s rights are not being enacted and speak out against it. Gender norms are an unconscious system of oppression that has been forced upon all of us. We are trying to break those down. We want to help the women in each and every community across the state of Vermont in whatever capacity they need.”
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