Women Work seeks program support

BRIDGEPORT – West Virginia must do more to encourage women to seek employment in non-traditional occupations, says Janis Gunel, executive director of West Virginia Women Work.

Gunel spoke Tuesday to the state Legislature’s Equal Pay Commission in Bridgeport.

Gunel said technical programs in the state tend to segregate students and do little to encourage women to seek employment in areas such as construction and trades, like carpentry and electrical jobs.

The Step-Up for Women program, which has locations in Morgantown, Martinsburg and Charleston, offers free 11-week classes for women to receive training in those fields.

“The overall goal of our program is to help adult women get entry-level jobs in construction,” Gunel said. “Many of them are single parents. Many are heads of household. About 60 to 70 percent have incomes under $10,000 when they start the program. About 90 percent have incomes under $25,000.”

Gunel said the program has an 80 to 90 percent placement rate, and starting jobs are usually $12 an hour or more.

The students who take the class are highly motivated, and instructors inspect them to not only learn the trade but also to show they are actively pursuing a job in the area they’ve chosen, she said.

“In order to graduate they have to show us they’ve done work,” she said. “They can’t just sit there and take the class.”

Gunel said for the program itself, the biggest hurdle is money.

“That’s the big question: the funding,” she said.

The program is funded partly by state and federal grants and a small amount of money from the West Virginia Department of Education for gender equality in vocational programs. But Gunel said the classes themselves can be expensive due to the cost of materials, travel and teachers. Students, however, do not pay tuition, which is part of the draw of the program.

“We estimate it costs us about $4,500 per student to put them through this training,” she said.

Gunel said she is actively pursuing business and community partnerships for the program and several legislators offered to help the program reach out to possible areas of funding.

Those interested can find more information on the program through facebook.com/stepupforwomen and can apply online at wvwomenwork.org/stepup.