By Laura Raines
Published: 5 July 2011
While women make up 46 percent of the U.S. workforce, they account for only 6 percent of the jobs in production, transportation and material moving occupations and 1 percent in natural resources, construction and maintenance occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Move over, guys. Looking for more job security and higher pay, or just following their natural talents, more women are entering male-dominated occupations.
Shontika Wallace just graduated with a diploma in automotive collision repair from Atlanta Technical College. Don’t let the pink and purple coveralls fool you — she was tops in her class.
“I was the only girl in a family that painted cars for a living,” said Wallace. “I always wanted to do it, too, but I had to grow older and more mature before I realized that I could still be a feminine woman and paint cars.”
Wallace worked as a dental receptionist before enrolling in the auto repair program. “There was only one other woman in the class. I was nervous at first, but once I put on coveralls and started doing the work, everyone treated me just like one of the guys,” she said. “Being a woman doesn’t have to stop you from doing a man’s job if you want to do it and are willing to work hard.”
Wallace plans to open a shop with her father and brother, but she wants to complete her associate degree in marketing from Atlanta Tech first. “I want to know the ins and outs of running a business before we start,” she said.
Rachel Baisden Young jokes that she was always “wired” to be an electrician. She took apart her first radio at 9; and installed light fixtures and junction boxes in her apartments in her 20s.
She loved wiring things but pursued a career in real estate from 1992 to 2005, thinking it would be a stable living. “I became a broker and made the million-dollar club, but I was more interested in repairing properties than straight selling,” she said.
When the market changed, she became a flight attendant. She flies for AirTran on weekends and goes to school during the week.
“That turned out to be a volatile industry, as well, with the recession and fuel prices soaring, so with encouragement from my daughter, I finally decided I should just go ahead and do what I love to do,” said Young.
She graduated in May from Atlanta Technical College’s Electrical Construction and Maintenance Program. “I was the only woman, but my teachers didn’t grant me any concessions. They were probably a bit tougher, knowing that I’d face challenges in the workplace,” she said.
Her colleagues soon discovered that she didn’t mind getting sweaty and dirty, could turn a deaf ear to construction language, was good at math and already had a hands-on knowledge of electricity. Women are detail-oriented and have the patience to do the job and make it look good, she said.
“If you’re great at your craft, all that other stuff about race or gender just goes out the window,” Young said.
Being named Atlanta Tech’s Student of the Year gave her a scholarship at DeVry University to earn her bachelor’s degree. She’s also considered getting her engineering technology degree from Southern Polytechnic State University, but currently, she’s finishing her electrical construction degree at Atlanta Tech.
“I’m glad I decided to do it, because I’ve got so many more options,” she said. “I’ve got tangible skills I can take anywhere. … It’s important to know that I can provide a decent quality of life for myself and my family in a down economy.”
Hope Edgerton is seeing more women of all ages take on commercial truck driving.
“They tell me they don’t want to sit behind a desk, and they want the job security of higher pay,” said Edgerton, lead instructor for commercial truck driving at Atlanta Tech. “With starting salaries of $37,000 and the industry having a great shortage of drivers, they know they can make a good living. It’s not unusual for someone to graduate on Friday and be employed by Monday.”
Edgerton grew up on a farm and started driving a tractor at 10. “At 18, I started driving a dump truck for the GDOT [Georgia Department of Transportation]. I’ve driven cranes, front loaders and trucks — if it’s got wheels, I can drive it.”
She’s also taking classes in aviation mechanics, another male-dominated career. “More women are getting their Airframe and Powerplant license these days,” she said.
The initial resistance to female truck drivers has decreased, said Edgerton. More trucks are automatic, and truck stops are safer and nicer. “Transportation companies value women drivers because they’re conscientious. They keep their trucks in good shape, do their paperwork and pass their inspections,” she said.
Women are realizing that they can do nontraditional jobs and that the opportunities are good, said Consuelo Espinoza-Godden, director of the Regional Transportation Training Center at DeKalb Technical College.
“With heavy equipment, all you have to be able to do is drive — the machine does the work,” she said. “Better ergonomics have made construction machinery easier to operate. These jobs don’t rely on physical ability. The key is being willing to work outside.”
Espinoza-Godden is overseeing a class of women taking the electrical lineworker apprenticeship program this summer. Climbing poles takes strength and agility, but she’s seen women do the job.
“We hold summer camps for kids and give talks in the high schools and middle schools to let boys and girls know about the opportunities in these fields,” said Espinoza-Godden. “These jobs pay really well, and with our aging workforce, we need to attract both men and women.”
Increased numbers of women workers have made the nontraditional tag of some jobs obsolete. When Sam Brown became an orthopedic technologist 16 years ago, sports medicine was a male-dominated field. When he became director of Southern Crescent Technical College’s orthopedic technology program, he was surprised that the vast majority of his students were female.
Brittney Powell graduated from the program in 2008 and is an orthopedic technologist for Resurgens Orthopaedics, in Midtown.
“In the past, the work was very strenuous, so I can see why mostly males did it, but better equipment and casting techniques have made the job physically easier,” said Powell. After high school, she was looking for a role that would challenge her in health care and discovered orthopedic technology to be a great fit.
She sees patients for casting, splinting and post-surgical checks, as well as scheduling surgery and other administrative tasks.
“You’re on your feet, twisting and bending and dealing with patients all day, but this is a very rewarding field for a woman,” said Powell. “You see patients in pain, but you also see them get better. At the end of the day, it makes me feel good to know that I’ve helped them and made a difference.”