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Women's Work

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

"I know,'' the girl says, staring 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.''

Back in the car, Carper says little besides ticking off a short list of the teenager's responsibilities, like helping her mother take care of the house and caring for her sister's sick child. It isn't until the next morning that Carper, a former elementary school teacher, finally puts into words what's on her mind. "She doesn't realize what she could have,'' she 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.''

And just what is it that Carper thinks this teenage girl and others like her could have? For starters, a job laying bricks for $14 an hour. Through the Careers Unlimited office at Kiamichi Area Vocational-Technical School in Idabel, Carper is one of a handful of local educators trying to get girls and women ages 14 to 25 into training for work that has previously been the domain of men.

Once they're skilled in a trade such as masonry, electrical maintenance, welding, or electronics, the young women are eligible for good jobs--jobs that promise more stable employment, more opportunities for promotion, and more substantial paychecks than would otherwise be the case. The idea is to give these young women a route--albeit an unorthodox one--to security and independence.

Still, it isn't an easy task for Carper and the other Oklahoma teachers and administrators who are trying to bring some sense of gender equity into the blue-collar workplace. Their work, they say, is fraught with obstacles that arise both on the job and in the students' homes.

Carper's frustration over the nonchalant attitude of the teenager she visited on Thursday comes into sharper focus when juxtaposed against the experience of Joanie Stewart, one of the program's success stories. Nowadays, Stewart can be found at the Weyerhaeuser container-board plant in the town of Valliant, where she works as an electrical and instrumentation helper, checking gauges on the various papermaking machines, confirming temperatures, and monitoring filters.

Before she attended the Kiamichi vocational program, 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. Then, in 1986, a friend told her about the Kiamichi Vo-Tech program. She enrolled in classes 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 the Weyerhaeuser mill. The job at what many in McCurtain County regard as its choice employer has enabled her to support her children and even purchase a house. "I never imagined owning my own home and vehicle,'' Stewart says. What's more, she is currently finishing up a series of college courses that the company is paying for.

"I talk to my son a lot about education 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.''

On her drive back to Idabel after visiting with Stewart, Carper talks once again about the young woman she called on the day before. Such girls, she laments, can't see any further than "the nose on their face.''

"They don't think beyond tomorrow,'' she says. "You ask, 'What's your career objective?' And they say, 'What's that?' ''

Many of the girls Carper tries to reach don't really want to support themselves. They prefer, she says, to trust that they will find a husband who will provide for them. When that dream doesn't work out, the women's families are often set against their going back to school to become skilled workers. They seem satisfied to have them care for children 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 carrying pines from the surrounding wood lots to the paper mill.

A not-so-subtle boundary line divides the main Kiamichi classroom building. Near the front are the rooms where girls learn data processing, keyboarding, and other clerical tasks. Here, too, are the health classrooms, also filled with girls. Down a breezeway and along the backside of the building are the rest of the classrooms--a metal shop, a masonry room where miniature bricked corners rise from the floor, and a pair of electrical workshops. This part of the building used to be called the boys' wing.

The idea behind Careers Unlimited, the program Carper coordinates at Kiamichi, is to bring down the arbitrary gender barriers in this and other Oklahoma vocational schools and, by extension, in workplaces.

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 more proactive approach. They used some of their federal funds to support the Careers Unlimited branches in eight vocational schools across the state. Educators linked to these branch 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, such as child care, transportation, and other support services.

"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 a female-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.''

In many ways, the graduates of Careers Unlimited find themselves saddled with the job of changing the world. Joanie Stewart at Weyerhaeuser, for example, says it took her co-workers awhile to accept her. Most of the women at the plant worked in the offices; she was only one of two women working on the giant paper machines. "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.''

But over time, 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.''

Still, despite the success stories and a decade-long track record, Careers Unlimited continues to face steep odds. The program itself is seen as an extra at most of the vocational schools where it operates. And companies remain hesitant about hiring women to do what have traditionally been male jobs. Randy Martin, the welding instructor at Kiamichi, says some firms express concern that women may create rivalries among the men on the job, become distractions, or have a hard time doing the work.

Some local employers disagree, arguing that expanding the pool of skilled workers--whether men or women--makes good economic sense.

"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. There are opportunities for anybody who shows initiative.''

--Lonnie Harp

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