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Hard-Hatted Women: Stronger Families, Stronger Communities & A More Dynamic Economy

by Terri Burgess Sandu

For the first time in U.S. history, mothers are now the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families, according to the October 2009 Shriver Report. Yet women are sometimes clustered in low-wage jobs with few opportunities to advance, and are just a fraction (often less than 3%) of workers in jobs that will drive economic recovery – including clean energy, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, and infrastructure.

The Hard Hatted Women Project (HHW) is one of a handful of organizations across the U.S. that is pioneering innovative strategies ways to recruit and advance more women in these jobs, and AmeriCorps VISTAs are helping. The VISTA members’ ingenuity and passion for service play a critical role in helping HHW develop and take to scale our Tradeswomen TOOLS model.

Tradeswomen TOOLS (Training, Outreach, Opportunity, Leadership, and Support) leverages the expertise of women who already work in nontraditional fields – those where women remain less than 25% of the workforce. At the core of our model is service. By building organic networks of support, VISTAs are helping to build our capacity in a way that will outlive any one grant or initiative. In fact, HHW now has a presence in five locations throughout Ohio, and invitations to expand into new communities within Ohio and the U.S.

Mentors and Role Models

Every day, AmeriCorps VISTAs help mobilize service from a wide array of community champions, both men and women, who share a passion for our mission. In particular, engaging tradeswomen as role models and mentors promises to have lasting, compelling impact by helping low-income women explore and pursue high-wage, high-skilled opportunities they might not otherwise consider. And this helps women and families move from poverty to economic security.

A 2008 graduate of Hard Hatted Women’s programs shared a powerful story when she spoke recently at the graduation of a career exploration class:

She entered a four-year engineering program and made it to her junior year before beginning to struggle academically. She left the program but chose not to “give out, give in, or give up.” Instead, she entered a community college. Despite the premature death of her mother and challenges with paying tuition, she kept going to earn her associates degree and got a good job.

Then the recession hit and she was laid off. When she found HHW, it recharged her drive and helped her develop additional skills. She eventually accepted a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at NASA, where she still works today, earning a good living while receiving 8,000 hours of paid, on the job training.She loves her work and is passionate about speaking to women to let them know that persistence and passion are essential to success.

Hard Hatted Women’s mission is only possible through the service and leadership of the women and men who walk through our doors, of the AmeriCorps VISTAs dedicated to expanding HHW’s model, and of the tradeswomen inspiring generations of new workers.

As a nation, we are stronger when we recognize that increasing our daughters’, wives’, sisters’ and mothers’ successful pursuit of high wage trade and technical careers, right next to our sons, husbands, and fathers, translates into stronger families, stronger communities, and a more dynamic and sustainable economy.

Terri Burgess Sandu is the Executive Director of Hard Hatted Women.

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