By Faith Gillman
When Victoria Jones found herself struggling to make ends meet, the single mom knew something had to change.
“I had been working two jobs but the retail store I was at closed down. My other was in housekeeping at a hotel, but that didn’t offer a lot of work in winter, although it was close to 40 hours in the summer. But the pay wasn’t very good,” said Jones, 29. “I had to move in with my parents. I needed state assistance, but since I lived with my parents they (the state) said, ‘You’re fine.’ I wasn’t. I needed my own space.”
That’s not to say Jones didn’t appreciate the assistance she received or her parents support. She did. But she wanted to provide for herself and her son on her own. She started looking at job training programs and came across Women Unlimited.
Founded in 1988, Women Unlimited helps Maine residents move toward earning a livable wage through access to and support of trade, technical, and transportation careers. The nonprofit, which receives the majority of its funding from federal and state sources, began as a welfare-to-work program for single mothers but has grown to aid in the “economic well-being of Maine women, minorities, and disadvantaged workers.”
“We offer nationally certified construction-based training through the National Center for Construction Education and Research. These competencies include the core of rigging, hand and power tools, blueprint reading, construction math (applied), safety, and job readiness,” said Lib Jamison, the organization’s executive director.
Additionally, Women Unlimited maintains a job bank with up-to-date employment opportunities, and administers the federally funded On the Job Training program for the state of Maine. It also offers welding classes through New England School of Metalwork, with one-day workshops and 120-hour training sessions, has offered class B commercial driver’s license training in the past, and works with the Maine Department of Education to offer the “WorkReadyME” classes in correctional facilities.
Interaction for Women Unlimited clients often begins at the job bank.
“We set up one-on-one interviews at the client’s nearest CareerCenter. At those meetings, we refer them to education, our trainings, other agencies as needed as well as connect them with open positions in their area,” said Jamison. “We make referrals, notify the company of the referral, and follow-up with the client to ensure they followed through.
“When we first make contact, many of our clients report they are receiving benefits such as TANF, Aspire, Unemployment, or WIC. Our goal is to get them to a place where they earn enough to wean off of these benefits and become taxpayers,” said Jamison.
Jamison said it is important to get women into non-traditional occupations.
“They pay more than most traditional employment, some of these positions do not require any educational prerequisites other than reading, writing and math at an eighth-grade level,” she said. “Our overarching goal is that clients will work one job instead of cobbling together a lot of jobs in order to make ends meet.”
And while the organization still functions in some ways as a welfare-to-work program for women, it has expanded its reach.
“Some years back we also began working with men because we believe that since most families need to be two wage-earners, we are helping the entire family,” said Jamison, who has been with the agency since 1992, the last 11 as director.
Jones, a self-described “tomboy” who played football in high school and later with the Maine Freeze and Maine Rebels women’s teams, thought Women Unlimited’s emphasis on what some might view as non-traditional career choices for women would work well for her.
“I’m definitely a non-traditional girl. I liked the way the programs (at Women Unlimited) give you a chance to try everything out,” said Jones. “I was able to decide what I wanted to do.”
Jones took a Construction Boot Camp, welding classes and got her Class B commercial license through the programs at Women Unlimited.
“In boot camp I had two weeks of class time where we worked on resume writing, construction math, hand and power tools, and blueprint reading,” said Jones. “I enjoyed it because it taught me things high school doesn’t teach you, like how to prepare for an interview and a chance to practice.”
During the camp, Jones also built a wooden tool box, which helped her refresh some skills she already had.
“I already knew how to use some tools,” she said. “I had always worked with my stepdad on projects, on my own vehicle, basic stuff. (The camp) was a reaffirmation that I could do it.”
Jones next took a welding course at New England School of Metalwork in Auburn.
“I had amazing teachers. They were encouraging and explained the process thoroughly. It was comprehensive training. The teachers explained applications for welding, metal properties, went over all types of welding. I enjoyed it,” said Jones. “And they were able to hang in there with us – even when the six girls in the class all cried on the same day.”
Jones also received a commercial class B driver’s license through a program at Women Unlimited that qualifies her to drive dump trucks and haul trailers under 10,000 pounds.
Job shadowing was next for the Phippsburg native, who now lives in Bath. Jones said she did a bit of everything from surveying, concrete, rough carpentry, to grinding for welders.
“It was on-the-job training. I always asked questions,” said Jones, who was hired as a bridge constructor by Maine-based company Reed & Reed following the job shadowing. “And the (class B) training through Women Unlimited came in handy. My instructor, Nancy, trained us on trucks that have two stick shifts. When I jumped into the yard truck it had two. I thought, ‘I know how to do this.’”
That was five years ago. When Jones started her job as a bridge constructor she was earning $12 an hour. Once she completed her on-the-job training, she asked the company to put her in as a welder.
“I realized I wanted to get more into welding and work with torches. You’re cutting metal with fire,” said Jones.
According to Women Unlimited, Jones’ skill led to her becoming state certified as a welder in just 766 hours –the average is 1,000 hours. With added skill came added benefits: Jones’ hourly wage rose to $14. From there she applied to Bath Iron Works, where she was hired as a ship fitter at $21.48 per hour. She now makes more than $25 an hour and has benefits for herself and her son.
Jones said she loves her work at BIW.
“It’s awesome, crazy some days but it’s great,” she said. “Some days are more of a challenge than others with different metal qualities. It can be complicated work. But I enjoy working with the people at BIW.”
Jones said that out of the approximately 500 people in ship fitting at BIW, there are about 20 women, although there are many women in other capacities and departments at the shipyard.
“You have to be trained and competent to be a ship fitter and be able to handle heavy tools. There are a lot of big pieces,” said Jones.
So is it hard being a woman in the trades?
“Older women talk about how the shipyard used to be,” said Jones. “Some things have changed, some haven’t. We have a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ day where we women leave work a little early and go out together and have fun. It builds confidence, but it is hard sometimes. There are still some hang-ups with women in the trades. Some guys will help and explain, but once in a while guys who think I shouldn’t be here because I’m a girl or don’t want to see a girl get hurt, will say something.”
Jones has found that age is not a factor in people who have a problem with women in non-traditional work.
“The younger guys tend to be more competitive, but I have had a number of older mentors who are always encouraging me,” said Jones. “They offer hints and tricks. If they see I’m going to listen and use it or at least try it, they like to be helpful. Sometimes the older guys are more welcoming. Since I became a mom I’ve learned to work within time constraints and structure. I take advice if it’s going to help.”
For Jones, the training she received through Women Unlimited resulted in more than just a good-paying job that she enjoys.
“It means a whole heck of a lot. I have more independence. I don’t need help from the state. I can do it on my own. If the shipyard goes on strike I can walk into a construction site and get work. I have experience and I can get a decent job and do it on my own,” she said. “I have my own place now and in five years hope to buy a home on my own. It’s uplifting. I bought my first vehicle with my own money and it’s great.”
Jones said to succeed in the classes and training, women need to keep an open mind and have a willingness to try.
“Some women were afraid of the welding, afraid of getting burned,” she said. “But once you learn about it and use protective equipment, although you may get a hot piece now and then you’re not afraid. Step over your boundaries and out of comfort zone and try.”
Would she recommend the programs Women Unlimited offers to other women?
“Yes. For both women and men – and it doesn’t have to be in the construction field,” said Jones “Try different things and see if you have a passion for it, and if you don’t at least you have a good job until you figure out what that (passion) is.”
Jones said the experience has taught her to believe in herself.
“Before this I was at a low point in my life. This has given me confidence in my abilities in all areas – in being a mom, in work, everything,” she said.
Jamison said that many of Women Unlimited clients have no self-confidence when they first connect with the organization.
“Success in classes and employment fosters improved self-image. It is exciting to see a client grow and blossom and we are blessed to be able to help them in that growth,” she said. “The greatest day is when we hear from a client that they have gotten a job that pays a livable wage.”
A focus on improving her skill level, both in work and in dealing with people, keeps Jones on track and moving forward.
“I’m always joking and always asking questions. You have to be willing to fight for what you need and be heard and continue to learn,” said Jones. “My son is in Cub Scouts now and trying out sports. I’m trying to stay three steps ahead of him, but if I can deal with the boys at work, then I can deal with my son at home.”
Victoria Jones took welding classes through Women Unlimited and now works as a ship fitter at Bath Iron Works, a job she loves. Courtesy photoVictoria Jones is a ship fitter at Bath Iron Works. Jones said even though her work takes strength and skill “non-traditional girls can still be a bit girly.” Courtesy photoVictoria Jones sought training through Women Unlimited to find employment with a livable wage to secure the future for herself and her eight year old son, Lochlan Aldrich. Courtesy photo