Walk around the cavernous "hard trades" wing of the Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) — which houses the auto-mechanic, carpentry, and welding programs, among others — and you're bound to witness a hubbub of activity, the bubbling-over energy of teenagers at work, the industrial sounds and smells of machinery and tools.
What you're not likely to see are many females. There's Mercedes, 18, who works on cars, and Serena, 15, who's in the Recreational and Marine Repair program, learning how to fix boat engines and snowmobiles. Eighteen-year-old Johanna has been practicing welding at PATHS for four years and she has two national certifications. Nicole, 17, is an aspiring entrepreneur in her first year in the Robotics and Precision Machining program.
These young women are clearly the exception to the rule, and the rule is based on precedent: When it comes to construction, utility, and maintenance trades, boys rule and girls . . . well, they're like a novelty.
This bears out in national career statistics, too. According to the federal Department of Labor, women comprise 1.4 percent of all employed carpenters; 2 percent of all small engine mechanics; and 5.4 percent of all welding, soldering, and brazing workers. And that's just a sampling of the non-traditional occupations of women (those in which women comprise less than 25 percent of the total employed) — almost every job on the list is one that involves tools, dirt, or classic vocational skills.
UNDER THE HOOD Girls in the “grittier” trades are still a novelty.
Many such jobs will be opening up over the next decade, as baby boomers retire and (hopefully) American manufacturing industries experience resurgence. A 2011 report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education says that "there will be 47 million job openings in the decade ending in 2018 . . . [and] while a record 63 percent of these openings will require some college education or better . . . nearly half of these post-secondary positions will only require an [associate's] degree or less. And virtually all of these sub-BA jobs will require the kinds of real-world skills students master in career and technical education."
In turn, an effort is afoot both here in Maine and on the national level to buff the tarnish off vocational training and in doing so, reinvigorate America's skilled workforce, its manufacturing base, its living-wage jobs.
Governor Paul LePage and state education commissioner Stephen Bowen have both publicly touted the importance of career and technical education (CTE); TV celebrity Mike Rowe (of the show Dirty Jobs), in 2011 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said "we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor — like, a big one — something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce." In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for "every American to commit to at least one year . . . of higher education or career training. This can be at a community college, a four-year school, vocational training, or an apprenticeship."