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Trade route

Women discover satisfaction Ñ and money Ñ in male-dominated jobs

When Lori Kajkowski was laid off last year from her job as a graphic designer, she embarked on a career path in a territory few women consider: the male-dominated building trades.

She discovered that the work of a sheet-metal worker was the perfect fit for her skills, that it offered a lot of variety and Ñ perhaps best of all Ñ that she could make a good wage doing it.

Kajkowski, 29, is an apprentice with Streimer Sheet Metal Works Inc. and last week was hanging ductwork on a project at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

'There is never a dull moment,' she says. 'There are always new challenges and new people.'

Rose Darke, 37, is studying for a new career as a steamfitter. Like Kajkowski, she was forced to look for other work after her job as an office worker for a niche magazine ended when the publication closed its doors in early 2002.

A mother of four, she was pursuing an engineering degree at Portland Community College before lack of funds forced her to leave the program.

She had been working as a janitor to make ends meet: 'I had tutored calculus and taken college courses, and there I was vacuuming in the middle of the night to keep my electricity on.'

'It's not what I wanted to do when I grew up,' she says, laughing.

While just 2.8 percent of workers in the trades are women, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, opportunities for them to break into the field do exist, and a number of resourceful women are taking advantage of them.

Both Kajkowski and Darke found a ticket into the trades through a group called Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a local nonprofit organization dedicated to helping other women blaze the same trail Kajkowski and Darke have.

'Most jobs in the trades begin as apprenticeships,' says Connie Ashbrook, executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, explaining that apprenticeship programs combine classroom learning with paid on-the-job training.

There are more than 400 female apprentices in Oregon working in fields ranging from mechanics and welding to construction and utilities, Ashbrook says.

'A lot of large companies are hiring tradeswomen,' she adds, citing local companies such as NW Natural, Portland General Electric and Hoffman Construction Co.

Kajkowski enrolled in Portland Pathways to Success, a free 13-week program offered by Oregon Tradeswomen, to learn more about her options. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, local foundations, industry sponsors and Oregon Tradeswomen members.

Kajkowski also visited the Sheet Metal Training Center, where she asked a lot of questions about the industry and career potential and eventually enrolled in the apprenticeship program.

Late one night while mopping floors, Darke came across a flier for Oregon Tradeswomen that read, 'Get the skills to pay the bills.'

For Darke, it was manna from heaven. 'The flier made me cry,' she recalls.

'I wasn't sure if it was even possible for me to do this,' she says. But with the help of a counselor at Oregon Tradeswomen, she developed a career plan and put together a portfolio to apply for an apprenticeship as a steamfitter.

'It's an incredible opportunity,' she says. Once her apprenticeship starts, she estimates that she'll earn $10.50 per hour, which she says, 'for me, is a very livable wage.'

The organization's Web site, www.tradeswomen.net, offers a treasure trove of stories from the past about women who have found their way into the trades Ñ such as Judy Campagna, a social worker who switched into commercial refrigeration work; Anne Galisky, who went from futon making to residential remodeler to her own business as a general contractor; and Bev Woodsong, a librarian who became an electrician and ultimately a general foreman.

The Web site also has a job board, message board and a list of apprenticeship programs accepting applications.

'Trades occupations are undervalued, especially for women,' says Ashbrook, who worked in the trades for 17 years before taking on the job of running Oregon Tradeswomen. Women in the trades don't have a lot of visibility, she says, and other women generally aren't aware of the opportunities.

Oregon Tradeswomen, whose offices are located at 1714 N.E. Alberta St., has been working to change that through education, leadership and mentoring since its inception in 1989. In 2002 the organization helped 34 women enter trades careers Ñ a number it hopes to double this year.

'The wages are great,' says Ashbrook, who estimates the average starting pay is around $11.34 per hour Ñ almost $4.50 per hour more than Oregon's minimum wage.

Almost 60 percent of Oregon trades workers are unionized, making them eligible for full benefits and pension programs. Plus, Ashbrook says, 'there is a lot of room for upward mobility.'

'Even in this economy, there is a steady stream of jobs,' Ashbrook says, citing the construction jobs expected to open up as the weather improves, including work in highway construction as Portland prepares to repair its infrastructure.

'There was a time when it was really uncool to be blue-collar,' Darke says. 'But that is changing. I want my daughters to grow up believing they can succeed in any career field, including the male-dominated trades industry.'