When I joined the YWCA, too many years ago, I signed up for swimming and ballroom dancing. If I went today, I might be offered plastering, carpentry and truck driving. Women aren't what they used to be, and neither are the organizations that serve them. The thoroughly modern YWCA now thinks as much about a woman's financial health as her physical health, with a growing emphasis on employment skills.
This is not true of all YWs. For many, the chief concession to modernity has been to add a yoga class. But many now offer employment training, and scores more are working to get such courses together.
A good number of the jobs courses are in so-called nontraditional skills - craft occupations from which women have been deliberately barred. What's so attractive about these jobs is money. By leaving low-paid clerical work and putting on overalls, a woman may be able to double or triple her former wages.
Unions and employers have long been hostile to women in the skilled crafts, that's why these jobs are non-traditional. But new laws have lowered the gender barrier. The Labor Department's regulations for integrating the skilled trades with both minorities and women went into effect just six months ago. Government contractors now operate under various types of quotas and, because of past discrimination, may be hard-pressed to find the workers they need.
The Supreme Court's recent decision in the famous Bakke case rejected numerical quotas in college admissions. Similar cases have challenged current employment quotas. But even if "head-count" rules are overturned, the courts seem generally sympathietic to fuzzier forms of affirmative action. In other words, the outlook for women in nontraditional skills remains good.
The Philadelphia YWCA has a program called "new jobs for women," financed with federal funds. As is the case with the programs of many urban YWs, it's geared toward those who are unemployed or considered unemployable. Many of the women are high-school dropouts.
Job training is given in a number of ways. One successful format is to have tradespeople bring their equipment right into the YW and give the course themselves. Local employers are willing to be helpful in this way because it saves them the expense of setting up their own minority apprentice programs, and also provides a ready pool of trained people to help them meet their quotas.
The Arco Chemical Co. hired a utility operator from the Philadelphia program at $8.07 an hour. Amtrak hired six women to help lay track at $6.24 an hour. Other graudates have gotten jobs as truck drivers, carpenters, machine operators and landscape foremen.
Last year, the Boston YW sponsored 16-week courses offering training in carpentry, electricity, plumbing, plastering and painting. It also offered physical training courses, to help women adapt to the strain of hard physical labor. The program's basic goal is to give women basic skills such as how to handle tools, so they'll qualify for the apprentice programs offered elsewhere.
"Students don't spend a lot of time sitting in a classroom," Juliette Brudney, executive director of the Boston YW told my associate Anne Colamosca. "Mostly they do real jobs, like plaster a wall in the YW that needs work or install some wiring with an electician looking on." Following studies suggest that women improve their earnings by more than 50 percent when they move into skilled craft jobs.