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Women's Work

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Bite off the job of changing the world and this is where you find yourself: driving on a desolate Oklahoma road, past chicken farms and trailers, turning onto a muddy lane, and stopping in the ruts outside a ramshackle old house where a lazy black dog watches over the littered yard.

Peeking into the dark doorway of the house, Joyce Ann Carper spots the 15-year-old girl she's come to find this Thursday afternoon. The girl, who is inside making a sandwich, has been absent from school for several days.

"Mr. Maness says you're falling behind," Carper says, looking at the girl.

"I know," the girl says, looking away.

"So you need to start coming back to school."

"I know. I'll be there on Monday."

"I want to see you there on Monday because you can't get any further behind."

"I will. I know."

Carper gets back in the car and says little besides ticking off a short list of the girl's responsibilities--helping her mother take care of the house, caring for her sister's sick child, trying to keep up with her home-schooling lessons in this remote rural neighborhood.

The next morning, Carper finally says what's on her mind. "She doesn't realize what she could have," the former elementary school teacher says with obvious frustration. "She doesn't realize that if she would just get to school and do her work that she could have so much."

This is how it feels to go against the grain.

Joyce Ann Carper imagines this girl and others laying brick on top of brick for $14 an hour, rather than ham on top of cheese just to kill another day. She is their link to a future far different from what they might manage on their own.

Through the Careers Unlimited office at Kiamichi Area Vocational-Technical School, Carper tracks girls and women ages 14 to 25 into training that has previously been the domain of men. Some are already in the workforce; others are home-schooled or attend a regular school.

Skilled in electrical maintenance, masonry, welding, electronics, and other trades, these women may find themselves in workplaces that are unorthodox. But they are also workplaces that promise more stable employment, more opportunities for promotion, and--perhaps most important--more substantial paychecks.

As these women prepare to cope with their lives, often as single parents, high-wage jobs are an obvious route to security and independence. Yet, the Oklahoma teachers and administrators who are pioneers in trying to take the politically correct concept of gender equity into the blue-collar workplace say that the appealing notion is fraught with obstacles arising both on the job and in the students' homes.

Not So Stupid

Carper's frustration over the nonchalant attitude of the teenager is rooted in the other end of the job-training spectrum, the story at the end of her Friday morning drive.

This time, she's headed west along the highway to the town of Valliant and the Weyerhaeuser container-board plant. Inside, Joanie Stewart works as an electrical and instrumentation helper, reading and checking gauges on the various papermaking machines, confirming temperatures, monitoring filters, changing out motors.

Before she went to the Kiamichi vocational school, Stewart's work was different. A single mother, she spent 32 hours a week working the cash register at the Piggly Wiggly in Idabel. The limited workweek was designed to make sure the store didn't have to provide any benefits when it cut her minimum-wage paycheck.

"When I was 16, I was married and pregnant," she says, repeating an introduction not unfamiliar to Carper and vocational educators across Oklahoma.

While working at the grocery store, Stewart divorced her husband, a welder. Through a friend, she found her way in 1986 to the Kiamichi Vo-Tech school where she went to classes during the day to learn industrial electronics.

Stewart, who quit high school in the 10th grade, finished the training and got a job with Brown & Root Inc., the industrial-maintenance company that handles mechanical upkeep at Weyerhaeuser's Valliant mill.

"I never imagined owning my own home and vehicle," Stewart says. Besides a home and transportation, the job at what many in McCurtain County regard as its choice employer also affords her son, now 12, and her 3-year-old daughter nice clothes and the benefits of a mother bent on being able to make her own decisions and finishing a series of college courses, which the company pays for.

"I talk to my son a lot about education--hard--because I started a family and then I finished school," Stewart says. "When I had to find a job, I didn't have any kind of education or training, but a lot has changed. I've found out you're not as stupid as some people make you think you are."

Arbitrary Boundaries

"The nose on their face," Carper says in the car on the way back to Idabel. She is still thinking about her Thursday afternoon house call. "They can't see any further than that. They don't think beyond tomorrow. You ask, 'What's your career objective?' and they say, 'What's that?"'

Many of the girls Carper tries to reach have a hard time discovering the desire to support themselves, preferring instead to trust that they will find a husband who will provide for the family. When that dream doesn't work out, families are often set against their daughters going to school to become skilled workers. Often, they are satisfied to see the girls care for children, struggle to make it off welfare, and hope for something better.

"Their lives are rough, and they are poor," Carper adds. "But there is something that can be done for these girls besides getting a man. To me, we give them a chance. We get them to a point where they can pick and choose."

The Kiamichi Vo-Tech campus is a collection of squat brick buildings that sits on an incline off the bypass that runs around Idabel--a favorite route of the log trucks that carry the trunks of pine trees from the surrounding woodlots to the paper mill.

A not-so-subtle boundary line divides the classroom building. Near the front are the classes where rooms full of girls work on computers learning data processing, keyboarding, and other clerical tasks. In the school kitchen, girls and boys both work, learning food-services jobs. The health classrooms are also filled mostly with girls.

Down a breezeway and along the backside of the building are the rest of the classes--a metal shop, a masonry room where miniature bricked corners rise from the floor, a pair of electrical workshops. They used to call it the boys' wing.

The idea of Careers Unlimited, the program Carper coordinates here, is to erase the arbitrary dividing line in this and other Oklahoma vocational schools and, by extension, the gap in workplaces and paychecks. In 1984, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act provided a small slice of its federal funds for sex-equity efforts. While many other states have used their federal grants to provide informational programs to familiarize teachers, administrators, and students with nontraditional career choices, officials here have taken a proactive approach.

Federal vocational-education funds still support the Careers Unlimited branches in eight vocational schools across the state. The offices recruit girls and women for training in high-demand, well-paying jobs ranging from construction to truck driving.

At Kiamichi, the $55,000 in Perkins Act funds pays for Carper's salary, part of a secretary's pay, and assistance for the girls and women enrolled here, such as child-care, transportation, and other support services to help them while they gain experience.

"To make it, a woman with two kids has to make at least $2 an hour over the minimum wage," says Lou Ann Hargrave, the state's director of gender-equity programs in vocational schools and the guiding force behind Careers Unlimited. "The reason young men don't go into afemale-dominated trade is that there is no financial benefit. But you would be surprised at how many girls have an interest in automotive mechanics and how all of this works."

Girls now dominate the masonry class at Kiamichi. They were the stars of the team that J.L. Maness, the school's longtime masonry instructor, took to a state competition last year.

"A lot of the boys in the class, by the time they learn to lay brick, they realize it's hard work and aren't as interested, but the ladies put forth more effort," Maness says. "There are tile setters making $20 an hour, and the market is wide open. Doing these jobs, these ladies can draw four or five or six times more pay than they can anywhere else."

Starting over after a relationship and a move to Texas didn't work out, LaDonna James, 19, is studying for work as an electrician--a job she has watched her grandfather tinker with. "I've been stung so many times that I really want to make something of myself," she says. "I want to set goals for me to reach and for the younger generation to see, too."

Steep Odds

In many ways, the graduates of Careers Unlimited find themselves saddled with the job of changing the world.

Joanie Stewart tells about how she was gradually accepted at her job, where she was one of two women working on the giant paper machines. The rest of the women worked in the offices.

"There were some attitudes that I was taking another man's place and that the men had families to support," Stewart says. "I had to prove I could do whatever they could do, and if one of them had to pick up a 50-pound box, I had to, too."

Over the years, it's gotten easier. "I haven't heard anything about taking a man's job in a while," she says. "Now, they say that if they have to work with a woman, I'm not bad. They even had a baby shower for me with cake and gifts--good gifts."

Despite the success stories and a decade-long track record, however, Careers Unlimited is still about fighting steep odds. The program itself is seen as an extra at most of the vocational schools where it operates.

Employers often worry about what hiring a woman will mean, says Randy Martin, the welding instructor at Kiamichi. Employers, he says, express concern that women may create rivalries among the men on the job, become distractions, or have a hard time doing the work.

Many local employers, however, contend that expanding the pool of skilled workers makes good economic sense for both the workers and local businesses.

"Everybody wants something better," says Junior Miller, the manpower and training coordinator for Brown & Root in Valliant. "But these women took the initiative and risk, and I've got to admire that."

"I don't think the gender difference makes any difference," he protests. "There are opportunities for anybody who shows initiative."

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