Construction class builds esteem, better-paying careers for low-income women

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Jackelyne Aguilera has had enough of hair, she told me, putting the safety goggles on her head and brushing off the sawdust in her braid.

For years, she's worked in a beauty salon, on her feet all day long, endless hours, chattering customers, body aches and for what?

"Maybe $300 a week. That's what I make. Even as a manager," she said before leaning back down to tackle the chisel and door hinge she is learning to mount. "These men who do this work? They make $1,000 a week. I can do that."

It's Saturday morning, and Aguilera, 29, is among a half-dozen women who are working hard in a basement classroom, ready to switch careers to something more lucrative and less traditional.

There's a housekeeper, a couple of nannies, a lab tech and the beautician. Their Langley Park classroom looks like Bob the Builder's dream -- a row of half a dozen faux doorways, another row of toilets, an entire wall of exposed wires and circuit breakers and hanging sockets. There are alcoves waiting for tile.

Migdalia Pavilla, who is 63, swings her knee up to steady the baseboard she is sawing, so she can get that tricky angle so elusive to us do-it-yourselfers.

"It's really not that hard once someone shows you how to do it," she said.

In their nine-week course, they will learn the basics of plumbing, electrical, carpentry, flooring, drywall and tile work.

And what's surprising is how unexpected this still seems seven decades after Rosie the Riveter's star turn during World War II. We're still not used to seeing the carefully plucked eyebrows behind the safety goggles, the dainty pink blouses fluttering in the blowback of a circular saw.

But it makes sound economic sense for low-income women to begin pushing their way into this world. For the most part, this class of women cleans houses, watches kids and waits tables. Anyone who has spent time doing any of those jobs knows two things: It's hard work, and the pay bites.

And yet this is where most nonprofessional women stay, hovering near poverty, often trying to support their children on their own.

Ninety-nine percent of roofers, who make an average of $16.17 an hour, are men. Meanwhile, 98 percent of preschool teachers are women, and that job gets them $11.48 an hour, according to a report on job training for low-income women released this month by the Women's Economic Security Campaign.

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