By BECKY GILLETTE
Single mothers without skills training or a college education have a tough time supporting their families. Poverty is greatest in households headed by single women. Many have to work two or three jobs at minimum wage, and even then aren’t able to provide for all their families’ needs.
Providing women with a way to make a living wage for their families is the mission of the Women in Construction training program at Moore Community House (MCH) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“Faced with a reality in which few economic opportunities exist for the low-income women of our neighborhood, Moore Community House seeks to help them explore new career paths,” states the website for MCH.
The program provides skills training for jobs in construction and advanced manufacturing.
“Minimum wage is $7.25 and a certified nurse assistant pays $9 per hour,” said Julie Kuklinski, program director of Women in Construction. “You can start at the shipyard for about $20 per hour — nearly triple the minimum wage. There is a perception of low-income women not working hard. But we often get women working two to three low-wage jobs coming to our classes. We see women come through our doors who just need additional skills. They have a work ethic, and a good attitude. When you have kids, you can’t enroll in college because you have to make money. The whole point of our program is rigorous, intensive and quick training to get women to work.”
When former students come by, Kuklinski is often amazed at their progress. Now they have a car that works and can get to work. Perhaps they were homeless before, and now are making enough to buy a home.
Financial success affects not just the women and their kids, but the entire community.
“It is so smart,” Kuklinksi said. “It makes sense. Mississippi needs to train women to get into these jobs.”
The program started in 2008 to help train women for construction jobs helping rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. While some women still go into construction, the focus is on all trade skills.
“There is not as much home building now as after Katrina,” she said. “We work a lot with advanced manufacturing, especially shipbuilding. Women go to work in the shipyard as pipe fitters, welders and that sort of thing. We also have women who are in trucking and heavy equipment operation. So the field has endless opportunities. If you look at the projections of hiring in this region, advanced manufacturing is growing. So they will need more people.
There is a great lack of middle skill workers in Mississippi. An obvious solution to us is get women the trade skills they need to fill that gap and make the wages they need to support their families.”
Are women strong enough? Can they handle this kind of work?
“That is absolutely not a problem,” said Kuklinski, who moved to the Coast from Wisconsin to help with Katrina rebuilding, fell in love with the area, and decided to stay. “There are different ways to work based on their size, their strength and intelligence. There are a lot of different strategies to go about the work. Physical limitations are never an issue for women. In fact, there are a lot of ways you can do things smarter and safer.”
There are advantages to going to work for larger companies like Ingalls Shipbuilding.
“Many of our students do work at small companies,” she said. “We love placing our students with jobs that fit them. Many of our students do go to work for a homebuilder or a small commercial contractor. But there are more opportunities with larger companies, and more job security.”
There are four classes per year averaging 15 to 20 students per class. More than 300 women have graduated from the program since it began in 2008. The job placement rate has been 70 percent.
The program recently received of a Department of Labor (DOL) grant called the Strengthening Working Families Initiatives.
“This is a really smart grant that brings the workforce system together with the child care system looking at what supportive child care services are needed to allow a woman to work,” she said.
“When a woman comes into points of entry like a WIN Job Center or a partner organization, we look at her family composition. We use a self-sufficiency calculator to determine how much she needs to make, and then fit the woman into a program that would meet her family’s self-sufficiency needs.
“It takes a system-level approach. This is how you can create something that allows women to go to work.”
The new DOL grant will allow them to expand Women in Construction to serve more women and provide services all across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Classes run between eight to 12 weeks depending on the course. Skills training can include apprenticeships or workforce training at community colleges.
“We build our curriculum around what industry says it needs,” she said. “We tailor a lot of what we do for industry. Apprenticeships are an important part of the program. Ingalls is one of our partners and they are dedicated to diversity within their shipyard.”
For more information, call 228-207-5265 or see the website www.moorecommunityhouse.org.