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Climbing the ladder

Five years ago, Anjanet Banuelos and her three children were living in her mother's home. Banuelos was a struggling single mother without a good job.

Fast forward three years to 2014, after she completed the journey worker program of the Oregon Laborers Apprenticeship and made enough money to buy her own home.

Today, Banuelos makes more than $50,000 a year and has health benefits and a retirement plan for her future.

“We do everything from environmental work, sewer work, deconstruction … every trade needs us,” Banuelos said.

She was one of hundreds of women and girls on site Saturday during the Women in Trades Career Fair at the National Electrical Contractors Association/International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Training Center in Portland. The fair is put on each year by Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Olivia Fowlkes, 10, holds a torch used in roofing and weatherproofing, with the supervision of Joel Gonzalez, right, during a Women in Trades Career Fair held in Portland on Saturday. To her right, Autumn VanGorkum, 9, waits for her turn.Across the parking lot from Banuelos, 10-year-old Olivia Fowlkes tried her hand at a roofing torch at the Roofers and Waterproofers Apprenticeship booth.

Nearby, her younger sister Meredith climbed her way up the ladder of a fire truck, with the supervision of Portland Fire & Rescue personnel. In many ways, the 8-year-old girl's ascent embodied the spirit of the career fair.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Meredit Fowlkes, 8 climbs the ladder of a Portland Fire & Rescue ladder truck during the Women in Trades Career Fair in Portland Saturday afternoon. Young girls and adult women alike got the chance to explore glimpses of careers in skilled trades like construction, public safety, electrical maintenance and welding, with hands-on demonstrations and workshops. These industries are typically dominated by men.

In Oregon, the median annual pay for a woman with a full-time job is $38,801, while median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $47,194, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. The wage gap is present across a wide range of industries and occupations, and is even greater for women of color, the organization reports.

It's one of the reasons Sue Caldera, a welding instructor at Clackamas Community College, helped revamp the school's welding program.

“There's a lot of jobs and money to be made out there,” Caldera said, but noted the trade is uncharted territory for many girls. “We probably have about 200 students that come through the college each week and out of that group, there are probably 10 women that sign up. A lot of it is just a lack of knowledge. They're not exposed to it.”

The average salary of a welder in Oregon is $40,486, or roughly $20 an hour.TRIBUNE PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Irais Gandarilla submerges and sets one of the many welding projects made by students during the Women in Trades Career Fair. Gandarilla is an Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. graduate and apprentice welder.

“It's a pretty decent living,” Caldera said of the profession, which is called on to fabricate metal products for cargo containers, rail cars, ships, aircraft and auto bodies, among other products.

She's helped grow the program at the college since she got there in 1998.

“When I started there, there was only one open to the public class,” she recalled. Clackamas Community College now boasts a welding technology program with three full-time instructors, including her, and plans to add a fourth instructor.

That may bode well for teens like Lizbeth Ortiz, who cited welding as her favorite demo of the fair.

“It was really fun making things with my hands,” Ortiz said, having just climbed out of a bucket truck operated by Bonneville Power Administration.