Melinda Reynolds, of northeast Washington, 28, high school dropout, divorcee, mother of a 12-year-old daughter, smiled at the hot soldering iron in her hand as if it were a magic wand.
She had decided to swap a life in the typing pool, and more recently in the employment line, for a try at a higher-paying career in the male-deominated field of electrical repairs.
Now she stood in a makeshift laboratory-classroom at the old Potomac Electric Power cCo. service building at Florida Avenue and 10th Street NWand laid silvery droplets on a tiny nest of resistors s and capacitors.
Reynolds is one of 18 women in an unusual six-month, eight-hour-a-day course designed to train them for entry level jobs as technicians repairing electric typewriters, copying machines, postage meters, utilityequipment and the like. The course is sponsored jointly by severalprivate companies.
"The compaines want women. They have to fulfill certain affirmative action requirements and they can't just get women off the street," said program director Susan Gilbert of Wider Opportunities for Women(WOW), which developed the program in cooperation with the companies.
Such programs are needed to break up "occuppational segregation by sex,"which is at least as great now as it was at the turn of the century, according to employment experts. In 1900, almost one-third of the female "ghetto" is in clerical work, which accounts for almost two-thirds of the female labor force.
"Affirmative action means nothing unless women can break into nontraditional fields, blue collar occupations, higher-paying jobs with career ladders," Gilbert said.
Melinda Reynolds, for example, had made $8,000 a year as a clerk after years of working her way from a $5,500 yearly starting wage, she said. "Now they tell me I should make no less than $5 an hour (more than $10,000 a year) as starting pay. But that's just the beginning. The best thing about it is that it's up to you how far you advance after that," she said.
The course porvides basic instruction in mechanics, electricity, mathematics and theory, as well as practical experience with tools and machinery, Gilbert said.
The women range in age from 18 to 53.
Sponsors of the program are IBM, Pepco, Pitney Bowes, McGraw-Hill, C & P Telephone and the Capital Institute of Technology. They contributed personnel, machine carcasses, lab space, manuals and other necessities.
Gilbert and the instructors said they anticipate no problems getting jobs for women who have finished the course, which has been designed to industry specifications.
"I'd recommend at least 15 of these women to our company," said Pat Harley, an instructor supplied by Pitney Bowes and who happens to be a female. Male instructor Ron Russell expressed a similar sentiment.
"Working with the women, we get to know for sure what training they've had and what their attitudes toward the work are-things it's hard to pick in job interviews alone," Harley said.
Around th e classroom, which is labbeled with an industrial "Women Working" sign, one group dismantled and assembled the clutch of a postage meter machine, another practiced using various tools and another clustered around a peg board on which they had built an electrical circuit-a spaghetti of wiring, switches and bulbs.
"I didn't think I'd ever do some of the things I've done here, and I sure didn't think I'd ever know what an ohm is, or how to mesh gears," said Sylvia Roberts, 38. Separated from her husband, she has three teen-aged daugters and had been laid off from her job with the D.C. government.
"I love this work. And the entry level salary will be higher than a typist makes after working a long time," she said.
Ava Gardner, a determindedly practical 21-year-old mother, had considered trying to put herself through art school, because she likes to paint, she said. She has been living with her mother. "But I'm trying to get where I can support my son(about a year old). I don't want to scrounge. I want to pull my weight 100 per cent and depend on nobody but myself. I think this gives me a better chance."
Watching the women's faces brighten in the light of the bulb they had wired with their own hands. Gilbert said, "What we're doing here is trying to fill in those years since the seventh grade when they were 'tracked' out of vocational skills, the years of sex stereotypes . . . They're a good group, enthusiastic about this work. Makes you wonder how many more like them are out there."