Women in Construction Week, March 5 to 11, has been celebrating women who work in the construction industry since 1998. This year’s theme is “Many Paths, One Mission,” which is meant to acknowledge the different paths women take to achieve their goals.
Alison Dempsey illustrates a path that other women in West Virginia can follow, too. She is a senior project manager at Solar Holler, West Virginia’s largest solar panel installation company. But just a little more than two years ago, she was working in retail and wishing for a change.
Scrolling through Facebook, she happened to see an ad for the West Virginia Women Work training program, an organization that supports and advocates for education, employment and economic equity for all women. The organization’s primary focus is to help women explore, train and secure employment in nontraditional occupations, especially the skilled trades.
“As West Virginia Women Work students prepare to enter our state’s workforce, WVU Extension offers training to help ensure they’re equipped with workplace safety and health knowledge,” Mark Fullen, WVU Safety and Health Extension director, said. “Our faculty lead courses provide students with OSHA certification cards as well as training in more specialized areas, like safe forklift operation. The West Virginia Women Work program is a great way for more females to get into the trades without having big tuition costs, and we’re excited to play a role in their training.”
Dempsey had seen the ad for this program a few times before, but this time it spoke to her. She applied to the program that night, and within a few weeks, she had an interview, got accepted and started classes in September 2019.
“When I joined the program, I did not know where it would take me,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t have my eyes set on working in solar, but through my experience in the class, I was able to narrow down an idea of what I wanted to pursue.”
A previous West Virginia Women Work graduate worked at Solar Holler, and the opportunity piqued Dempsey’s interest because she loves the environment and being outdoors. She requested to job shadow at the company and after her first day, she knew this was for her. She immediately applied for a position as an installer at Solar Holler.
Because of her past retail experience, plus her skills and knowledge from the West Virginia Women Work program, she was offered a project manager position. And although this was a welcome change in Dempsey’s life, it wasn’t a path she had ever envisioned for herself.
“As women, I feel like we’re mentally limited on what we’re supposed to do and what’s presented to us as we go through school,” said Dempsey. “A lot of women focus on careers that are traditionally more feminine, which there is nothing wrong with those areas, but we are never exposed to the idea that we can build things and work in different settings alongside men.”
This limitation is part of the reason that West Virginia Women Work focuses its efforts specifically toward women. These classes give women experience and the opportunity to learn about tools and methods they might not have otherwise had the chance to try.
“Women and girls are often encouraged to explore careers in caregiving, retail, early childhood education, administration, or cosmetology. The median pay of these careers is much lower than those traditionally dominated by men such as construction, equipment operations, maintenance, and the skilled trades.” director of West Virginia Women Work, Carol Phillips, said. “We want to empower women to explore education & career paths they may not have considered and that can lead to higher pay."
West Virginia Women Work offers classes in many areas, including carpentry, plumbing, electrical safety, construction and more. Students also learn about what kinds of authorizations, certificates or license cards they need for each study area. They also have opportunities to visit work sites, learn about unions and job shadow in different fields.
“West Virginia Women Work is proud of our graduates like Alison, who are not just excelling in their careers but being role models for other women,” Phillips said. “By providing creative education paths that provide the skills necessary to obtain high paying careers, our programs can move women from unemployment or underemployment to a living wage in a short period of time. With partners like WVU Extension providing industry recognized training, we are able to place women in high-paying careers that benefit the women, their families and employers in West Virginia.”
A crucial aspect of these programs is the cost. Many programs that West Virginia Women Work offers are tuition-free, while others are low-cost with scholarships available. This gives interested people a chance to get an education without the barrier of cost.
“The program gave me so much confidence, not only in what I could do, but in myself as a person,” said Dempsey. “It gave me the opportunity to be a better mother and provide for my son financially and emotionally, and I have had such a great experience growing after taking that chance on a career change. All it takes is that first step.”
Beyond this partnership, WVU Extension Safety and Health Extension offers many other trainings and programs to help individuals lead safe, prosperous lives – including more than 40 OSHA courses covering everything from basic workplace safety to specialized safety trainings, as well as health care continuing education opportunities through the Shirley M. Kimble Training Center.
To learn more about what WVU Extension Safety and Health Extension offers, visit https://extension.wvu.edu/community-business-safety/safety-health.
If you want to learn more about WVU Extension, visit extension.wvu.edu or follow @WVUExtension on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram.
CONTACT: Sydney Keener