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Guest Blog: Jen Netherwood

Here at Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., we are thrilled to welcome Jen Netherwood as a guest blogger! Not only is Jen one of our Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class grads but she is also an instructor for current OTI classes, actively involved as a volunteer, and tirelessly works for access for women in the trades.  We are happy to announce that Jen is the January winner of Irwin Tools’ “Nominate  A Tradesman” competition.

Over the past couple of months, tradeswomen across the nation have been advocating for Irwin to change their logo and the title of their competition. We think tradeswomen should be recognized for all of their contributions to the community as well! Join us, and nominate your own tradeswomen today.

In the meantime, lets turn it over to Jen to hear more about her amazing story and the work she is doing for women at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

Coffee-Creek-2012-600x441

For women that enter the trades, becoming a Tradeswomen has meaning far beyond the tools and skills. From simply walking onto a job-site where we are 1 of 100 workers, to standing up for our rights in court, whether we set out to do it or not, we are breaking down stereotypes and changing the face of construction. I set out to do it, to change how society defines a construction worker. I have spent my entire life in male dominated professions. First in sports, now as a Journey level carpenter, I have looked for ways I could contribute to breaking down old stereotypes.

I completed the OTI TAC Class in 2005 and went on to complete the apprenticeship program at the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute as one of about 4 women. It made a huge difference to me knowing that although I was in the minority, women had gone before me and at least put some gravel down on the path! I stayed involved with OTI and eventually began teaching for TAC and Building Girls. Although I really didn’t know what my path was going to be, it was clear to me that the heart of my passion for carpentry was in my desire to play a role in inspiring other women to become Tradeswomen.

In the summer of 2012 that path opened up. OTI recommended me for a position teaching a new pre-apprenticeship program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in Oregon. I had never so much as been inside a jail and what followed was life changing for me.

With about 12 hours of training, a radio, and the knowledge that I wasn’t a really good hostage candidate, I started the program with 22 women, skill saws, hammers and utility knifes. What I observed was a group of motivated women who were willing to challenge themselves and each other to do something they had never thought they could (a couple women even said they really didn’t believe women could go into the trades).

From October 2012 to August 2013 40 women completed the BOLI certified pre-apprenticeship program at Coffee Creek. The most amazing thing I saw happen was the sense of pride that grew within so many of the women. They began to see that they could lift 3/4″ plywood, handle a circular saw, roof a house, and install Sheetrock. They started to tell me about conversations they had with their kids, how impressed their kids were that their moms knew how to build a saw horse and use a table saw.

One woman told me that her mom sent her an article about how she was one of the first female low voltage electricians for Pac Bell. This inmate had not spoken to her mom in years and they connected through her participation in the pre-apprenticeship class. Now that inmate is a material handler for IBEW and completing the steps to becoming an apprentice.

Another woman told me her 17 year old son was so inspired by her that he decided to enter the carpenters’ job core program. She was able to send him the tool belt she earned at Coffee Creek to get him started. She has worked with the courts while she’s still at Coffee Creek to develop a payment plan to get her driver’s license back when she paroles so she can pursue a career as an Ironworker.

Through experiences with inmates like these my grey area for what I thought I thought about incarcerated adults, our legal system, and our prison system grew exponentially in the 13 months I was employed.

One of the most profound conversations I had with the women went like this:

Inmate: Ms. Netherwood you treat us different.
Me: What do you mean?
Inmate: You treat us like human beings.
Me: Well aren’t you?

Unfortunately the company that I worked for decided to cancel the program in August of 2013, despite its impact on the women and clear potential for a path to family wage jobs. In 2014, 75 women who graduated from Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. averaged a starting wage of $15.18 per hour. Another 13 graduates moved from their first job to apprenticeship, raising their average to $19.02 per hour.

I have been working with Portland Community College Corrections Education since August of 2013 to build a brand new pre-apprenticeship program for Coffee Creek because I whole heartily believe that access to the skills and knowledge about how to become a Tradeswomen and earn a family living wage will be life changing for the women who complete the program.

The Department of Corrections and Portland Community College will negotiate that contract this month, March 2015. I encourage you to contact your Representatives and Senators to tell them the positive impact that access to pre-apprenticeship training for women is having. More specifically, you can have an even greater impact if you write to the Public Safety Subcommittee of Ways and Means (the budget committee for the Department of Corrections).

How to Write a Letter to your Legislators

For the incarcerated women at Coffee Creek, a construction trades pre-apprenticeship program can set them on a path to a family wage career, increased self-esteem, a positive contribution to society, a tangible connection to their family, and a chance to break the cycle of incarceration. Whether we set out to do it or not, whether we simply show up and work hard or we go before the Oregon legislature and speak up about how things need to change, we really are changing the world. Or, at the very least, how Oregon defines a Tradeswoman.

For Tradeswomen past, present, and future, never underestimate your impact!

About Tiffany Thompson

Tiffany Thompson is the Advocacy Program Manager for Oregon Tradeswomen.

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