On Tuesday, Oct. 28, the 30 women trainees in the Wider Opportunities for Women program received what must have been a bitter blow.
At 5 p.m., after a long day of tuning engines, smearing grease and learning other tricks of the automotive trade, they learned they would not be paid either for their previous two weeks of work or for the remainder of the CETA-sponsored program.
Unlike their counterparts in the city's troubled youth employment program last summer, however, none of the women walked off the job, stormed the Department of Employment Services or cursed their supervisors for failing to come up with the payroll. The women said later that when they heard the bad news, they simply shrugged -- and all came back to work at the garage the next day.
"I didn't even consider not coming," said 19-year-old Sharon Smith, working at the thick oil lodged under her nails. "The money's good, but that's not what I came for. I came here for the experience and to get a job. I like it. I feel good, being able to accomplish something."
Sharon and her 29 classmates are participants in a training project operated by Wider Opportunities for Woman (WOW), a 16-year-old organization that prepares low-income D.C. women to fill blue-collar jobs in male-dominated fields.
With a placement rate of 85 percent and a job-retention rate of 80 percent, WOW is apparently so successful in fulfilling its promises to its trainees that its program has been selected as a national model for the CETA program's Title VII -- the Private Sector Initiatives Act under the U.S. Department of Labor. Title VII encourages private-sector support of government-sponsored training programs.
Sharon and her colleagues work in a garage owned by the Department of Transportation, repairing city vehicles. They are scheduled to graduate this month, and some members of the class already have been placed in jobs.
Ironically, WOW's money problems began two weeks ago when the D.C. Private Industry Council -- the agency that channels funds to WOW from CETA -- could not cover the program's expenses between the end of fiscal year 1980, in October, and the next congressional appropriation of funds, due in January.
Susan Gilbert, director of the Nontraditional Work Program, explained that CETA-financed agencies usually negotiate 30- and 60-day sub-contracts to keep programs running through the interim, but an oversight or an error on the part of the Private Industry Council caused the gap in WOW's funds.
"The Private Industry Council is relatively new, and I just think that they didn't know how to do [the negotiating]," Gilbert said. "Title VII funds the council, and last year was their first year of funding. We used to have problems with CETA as well, until everybody got the hang of it. But the important thing, I think, is that it could have been a very volatile situation, like this summer. And [the trainees] were just so positive about it. The staff must feel very good about it."
One reason for the high spirits may be WOW's record for delivering on its promises. The program's administrators will not accept funds for instruction they consider inadequate to train the women in the skills they need to compete in the market place.
"Our method has been to say, 'Where are the jobs?' and 'What are they?' And then we go to the employers and say, 'What do you need?,'" said Gilbert. "We have a model of tight industry involvement in the development of the curriculum. Industry wants relatively skilled entry-level employes, and we know what the skills are. That's why we don't do any fast and easy training."
Linda Hopper, who coordinates curriculum development, added, "Entry-level requirements have not been static in the two years that I've been here. So you can't remain complacent."
WOW administrators have continued with plans to start another class at the end of this month. Funds to pay the next trainees will not be affected by the current snafu, said Gilbert, and the program will soon take over and renovate the abandoned Magruder School building at 17th and M Streets NW.
The new building will have room for classes and industry-donated equipment that is too large for the current facilities at 755 H St. NW.
As for the present unpaid class, last week the women were continuing their grimy trade with gusto, despite the lack of pay.
"Oh, when they couldn't pay me I didn't let that bother me, because I'm still getting training. When I get out as a mechanic I'll be making more money anyway," said Norma Lee with a tiny voice and a shy grin. The diminutive 20-year-old graduated from Eastern High School in 1979, expecting to make a career of office work.
But, she said, those jobs were so boring that she was continually quitting. "I always wanted to get into something hard -- a man-type job. This isn't that hard, but I like it anyway. I want to stay in this and go as high as I can."
"I have to work or I go crazy," said Southeast resident Illaina Baylor. "And I think you can fix cars and be feminine. I think I'm a whole woman."
Perhaps most importantly, the women have sustained the motivation that brought them into the training. "Before I came I was trying to get a job but I guess I wasn't trying hard enough," said Sharon Smith. "I like this. Office work -- you sit down all day, you do the same thing. But this," she said, gesturing toward the dismembered auto, "it's a whole new experience every day. And as I progress, I might just get into airplanes."