Skilled trades are in high demand. A new Orange County program trains women for them.

CARRBORO

Jasmine Jones was working in maintenance at the University of North Carolina when the coronavirus pandemic began. Then the virus hit, the school closed, and Jones was unemployed.

She found work as a plumbing associate at a Lowe’s in Cary, but wanted to get her hands dirty.

“I just want to do manual labor instead of being behind a desk taking phone calls,” said Jones, 30.

This week, she launched her new career as a plumber, landing a job at Carrboro Plumbing.

Getting her from plumbing associate to plumber was Hope Renovations, a new skilled trades training program in Orange County specifically for women. It launched in July and graduated its first class this month.

High-wage skilled trade jobs have long been occupied mostly by men. Hope Renovations says that more women can do them and trains them for it.

In addition to its 10-week pre-apprenticeship training program for unemployed or underemployed women, it features an all-female home renovation and repair crew that allows trainees to get hands-on experience.

Nora Spencer, the founder of Hope Renovations, has 15 years of experience in human relations. But when she found out she worked well with her hands, she became a skilled tradeswoman with experience remodeling homes.

But in that industry, “I only saw men doing it,” Spencer said in an interview. “It bothered me that I didn’t see any women.”

As a graduate student in social work at the University of North Carolina, she worked with homeless women, who she said were stuck in the cycle of low wage jobs in food service and cleaning that many women find themselves in.

“I talked to them about working with their hands,” Spencer said. “They said, ‘But nobody ever taught me. It’s a man’s job.’”

Women hold only about 3% of the skilled trade jobs in the construction industry, according to the National Association of Home Builders, while more than 70% of women in the industry are in sales or office positions.

The six tradeswomen who graduated from Hope Renovation this month were trained in plumbing, electrician work, HVAC work, home renovating and more.

“I’m the type of person that does not like to be boxed in or limited to do things,” said Jones, who breaks the stereotype image of a plumber. “I always want to do things outside of the box. That’s just me.”

Her new skills have won her a full-time job that she said she dreamed of. At Carrboro Plumbing, she’ll use her new knowledge in pipe fitting, faucets and toilets.

“The moment I touched the tools, the moment the instructor old me what I needed to do, I knew I was in the right path and getting what I needed for me to go into my career,” said Jones.

“Women don’t learn this stuff growing up, so we don’t have that innate confidence that we can do it the way that men do,” said Spencer. “Our job is to make sure we are helping these women build the confidence to go into the industry to be successful.”

Women, who hold about two-thirds of the 40 lowest paid jobs in the country, according to an April report from National Women’s Law Center, were dealt an economic blow from COVID-19.

But the current housing boom in the Triangle is keeping contractors busy, Spencer said. There’s a shortage of skilled tradespeople for home construction even during record unemployment, according to the Home Builders Institute, a home construction training program.

Trainees at Hope Renovations join the construction arm of the program, helping to do small to mid-size remodeling and repairing the homes of seniors.

The program’s launch was delayed for months due to the pandemic, then started once the women enrolled were eager to begin.

“They were telling us, ‘We want to get going with this. The job market is good in the construction industry right now, we want to get this training,’” Spencer said. “We had to figure out how to make this happen.”

With masks and social distancing, the students conducted their training in a Carrboro workshop in a space rented to them by Fitch’s Lumber & Hardware. In addition to skills training, career development and social skills are part of the program.

Nearly 11 million jobs held by women were lost from February to May, although some 2.9 million were regained, mostly in the hospitality field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The training at Hope Renovations is free and includes a small stipend for those who enroll. The program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has received funding through grants. The next class of trainees will begin on Oct. 13.

The program allows only women residing in Orange County right now under requirements from state funding, but hopes to expand next year.

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