Jess Kurtz grew up in Oakland, California in a low-income neighborhood with an underfunded school system and fewer opportunities. But, Oakland was also a socially conscious community with a deeply embedded awareness for radical activism that made a lasting impact on Jess’s life and sparked a lifelong interest in human rights. Her grit and determination helped her find her way to pursue work that would eventually lead her to land a very lucrative job in corporate marketing with a great salary, but little work-life balance. While in this position, Jess was in a terrible accident and was sent to Portland, OR for reconstructive surgery at OHSU. Following this life changing experience, Jess decided to stay in Portland and leave her 80-90 hour a week career in the corporate world behind in hopes of finding a job that mirrored her passion for women/worker’s rights, and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
Once settled in Portland, Jess purchased some goats and started a nonprofit now known as the Belmont Goats, which is near and dear to the hearts of many in the Portland community. Jess also held a job as a union negotiator at Communication Workers of America Local 7901 where she met Madelyn Elder, the current CFO at Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. She kept in touch with Madelyn over the years and when she learned about OTI she kept the organization in the back of her mind.
Later, Jess worked at a glass and metal manufacturing facility where she was introduced to welding by a coworker. She fell in love with the trade and enjoyed learning a tangible skill. During this time, Jess was in involved in an abusive relationship with her partner who was also a coworker. When she was assaulted on the job, Jess’s sense of safety in her workplace was compromised. Like many employers, Jess’ did not have the skills or knowledge about how to deal with intimate partner violence in the workplace. Although Jess liked her job and felt a sense of loyalty to her employers, she ultimately chose to leave.
Upon leaving that job and taking some time to heal, Jess was motivated to continue working towards her goal of being a welder and called Madeyn to learn about how OTI could help her. Jess enrolled in OTI’s first Women in Metals and Manufacturing cohort and finished the course with high praise from her instructors and a deeper appreciation for the importance of women in the trade industry. She finished the program in 2015 while also working on finishing up her Associates in Applied Science in Welding Technology at Portland Community College. After taking some time off to travel in Europe, Jess is back in Portland and just accepted a job at Big Marine with hopes of entering the Boiler Maker apprenticeship as soon as possible.
Jess’s future goals include becoming a journeyman welder and a Certified Welding Inspector with the hopes that she can be an independent contractor and work abroad. She would also someday like to have her own welding company so that she can provide a safer workplace for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. Jess is a champion for the work that OTI does and hopes to be able to give back by being a mentor for other women who want to enter the trades.
When asked what her advice would be for women who are considering a career in the trades she said “entering the trade of your choice by way of an apprenticeship is the most valuable thing you can do in regards to making more money and being a professional in your trade”. She also spoke about the skill of learning how and when to stand up for yourself as a woman in the industry while also learning when to bite your lip and follow orders in order to gain more respect from your peers.