- Glenn Russell
- Graduates and staff from the Vermont Works for Women Trailblazers program posing for a photo after a graduation ceremony
On a Saturday morning in late July, seven adult students gathered in a South Burlington garage for a lesson on bending conduit.
Wearing steel-toed boots, work pants and bright-orange Vermont Works for Women T-shirts, the group encircled instructor Danielle Bombardier, an experienced electrician, as she demonstrated the process.
Conduit, Bombardier explained, is just a fancy name for pipe. "But we call it conduit, not pipe," she said matter-of-factly, prompting several laughs.
Gripping a long tool with a metal hook at its end, Bombardier bent the metal into a 90-degree angle, then used a hacksaw to cut it and a metalworking tool called a reamer to smooth out a sharp edge.
Her fluid work prompted several exclamations of "Whoa!" and "Cool!" from the students.
"We love tools!" one said enthusiastically, eliciting a few more chuckles.
Members of the group then dispersed, each grabbing their own piece of conduit and a set of tools to try it themselves.
The students were several weeks into Trailblazers, a program that aims to give women and gender-nonconforming individuals hands-on experience in construction, electrical, plumbing, HVAC and solar installation — industries that have been historically dominated by men.
Vermont women make up only 3 percent of the workforce in these sorts of jobs, according to a 2016 report from Change the Story VT, an initiative to improve women's economic status. And high school technical centers, which prepare young people for careers in the trades, currently average less than 12 percent female enrollment, with some as low as 6 percent.
With its Trailblazers program, Vermont Works for Women — a nonprofit dedicated to helping women and girls pursue work that leads to economic independence — is trying to boost female representation in the trades.
During the 10-week program, participants learn to use power tools and complete small construction projects. The most recent graduates built a chicken coop and an outdoor play kitchen for a local preschool.
Classroom lessons, taught by women who are veterans in the trades, cover topics such as construction math, blueprint reading and material handling. Students also undergo 10 hours of Occupational Safety Health Administration training, which is recommended for entry-level construction workers.
Trailblazers was established in 2019 and initially funded through a federal Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations grant. That support has ended, but Vermont Works for Women continues to fund the program — and make it free for all who attend — through a combination of private philanthropy and financial support from the Vermont Department of Labor and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. To date, 68 students have graduated from the program, which costs roughly $30,000 per session.
And the program is growing. In September, Vermont Works for Women — which also runs trades and career exploration programs for middle and high schoolers — will launch its first Trailblazers program in Rutland. The nonprofit is also working to design a session next year focused exclusively on the solar industry.
This summer, participants attended classes in July, then spent the bulk of August gaining workplace experience through three-week internships with local businesses — from small makers of custom cabinetry to large organizations such as the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Before hosting interns, employers must participate in training on gender equity and bias to ensure a supportive environment.
Though it's not explicitly a "job-feeder program," Vermont Works for Women executive director Rhoni Basden said that around 65 to 70 percent of those who complete Trailblazers eventually find work in the trades.
A variety of life circumstances brought the most recent participants — the sixth cohort to go through the program — to Trailblazers.
Jamie Curtis, a single mom from Burlington, recently left a childcare position after 17 years in that field. She loved working with children, but the job didn't pay well, she explained.
Curtis' father worked as a contractor, and as she grew up, she said, she "dabbled" with his tools. She's also a good problem solver.
She's hoping to find a job in the trades so she can buy a home for herself and her son.
Franklin County resident Christie Fletcher has held jobs as a home-based childcare provider, a train dispatcher and a baker. For the past 14 years, she's also worked on and off as a framing assistant for a local contractor. Fletcher said she likes the work, but it's hard on her body. Plus, she said, "the men in the [construction] industry do not tend to be teaching-oriented."
Fletcher spent much of her time during the pandemic caring for her two young kids. "COVID brought me to my breaking point of staying home," she said. "You lose your identity," she said. "You're just Mom."
Trailblazers is a chance for Fletcher to build her skills, she said, with an eye to a new, more lasting career.
Lily Lukaszevicz, the self-described "baby of the group" at 22 years old, came to Vermont from Massachusetts to attend Champlain College but left after a year and a half. For the last two and a half years, she's worked full time at Starbucks, where she's now a shift supervisor.
Lukaszevicz said that, growing up, going into the trades wasn't even on her radar. Now she's hoping to parlay her experience with Trailblazers into a carpentry position.
"I need to find a big-kid job and a career path," Lukaszevicz said. "Office work absolutely is not what I'm interested in. I work better with my hands."
Tammy Ellis, the lead instructor for this group of Trailblazers, spent more than three decades working for VTrans in construction, engineering and maintenance before recently retiring.
Ellis said there's a shortage of labor in all trades, one that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. During the last few decades, she said, people were told they could only get a good job if they went on to higher education. Instead, many of them just ended up with huge amounts of college debt.
Ellis sees programs such as Trailblazers as part of the solution. Jobs in the trades can be lucrative and lead to long careers, she added.
"You don't need to be a guy to be a plumber or an electrician or a carpenter," she said. "You just have to be an able-bodied person who is able to learn."
Lynn Wood, another instructor in the program, agrees. She started cleaning boilers 30 years ago, coming home at the end of the day with soot on her hands and up her nose. For the past decade, she's worked at the University of Vermont, where she's currently in charge of operations for 100 buildings as a zone manager in the Physical Plant Department.
Wood said it's been difficult recently to fill jobs in her department. There are multiple vacancies, and positions that are posted sometimes don't even attract applicants.
"With trades lacking people, there is, in my opinion, a really untapped resource, which is women and younger people, as well," Wood said.
As part of the course, Wood took the Trailblazers group to UVM's Davis Center, where she showed them how to clean and maintain the building's huge air-handling units. Last Saturday afternoon, she planned a lesson on low-voltage circuits, which are used in security systems and fire alarms.
The summer program includes both classroom instruction and internships. Participants said the program stretches both mind and body.
Rachel Boehr, who worked as a teacher in the correctional system in New York before moving to Vermont to attend Trailblazers, said her internship with Wooden Hammer, a woodworking shop in Monkton, exposed her to a wide variety of tasks — from building kitchen cabinetry to constructing an addition on the woodshop.
"I've had a really interesting balance of yin and yang — very fine details and sanding, where every mark matters, and then putting up windows and panels, none of which I've done," Boehr said. "So it's all been a lot of growth."
"Handling materials up a ladder and drilling above your head — I mean, you don't know how to do it until you do it. And then you look back and I've, like, drywalled a whole ceiling on a building," she added.
Lukaszevicz, who interned with Richmond-based Birdseye Construction, got to experience four different job sites, where she was exposed to framing, window installation, woodworking, plumbing and more.
"They have done a really good job of realizing that I'm not just being sent to them for labor; I'm being sent there to learn," she said. "They really are making an effort to show me as much as they can in three weeks."
Lukaszevicz said she's hoping to sharpen her skills by finding employment with a smaller contractor after the program ends.
And Vermont Works for Women will be there to aid in her job search, and beyond.
"Once you've been in a Vermont Works for Women program, you can go back anytime — forever," program manager Missy Mackin said. Mackin helps Trailblazer graduates polish their résumés and set up interviews with potential employers. And if a job doesn't work out, she said, the organization will help grads find another one.
"It's amazing to have just this organization as a resource forever," Lukaszevicz said.
On August 21, Lukaszevicz and her fellow Trailblazers celebrated their graduation with certificates, speeches and a sheet cake from Costco. Boehr delivered a message to the instructors on behalf of the group.
"When you enter the trades, there's so many skills and so many details and so many practical things to learn, and your mind sometimes feels like it's exploding," she said. "But I think what is so unexpected is the other things we learned: believing in yourself, supporting each other, pushing through when it's hard and knowing when to relax and not push, and just knowing that we can do it, and there's a community where you can share things that come up for you."
As the ceremony wrapped up, Mackin shared some final words of encouragement.
"Just go out and be more awesome than you were when you walked in," she said. "And stay in touch."