The Lucrative Reason Some Women Say It Pays to Ditch College

Why spend four years studying, with no guarantee of work, if you can earn more from a secure job? That's what more women are asking.

Stephanie Ryznar (background) operates a pile driver and makes more money now than she ever did with her college degree. (Photo: Facebook)

Nov 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A Wolfe has covered arts, entertainment, and politics for Good, Vice, Flaunt, and other publications.

Growing up, Monica Na was expected to go to law school. She went to UC Berkeley, got a master’s degree, and worked on Excel spreadsheets until she couldn’t take it anymore. She informed her parents she was quitting to pursue something else.

“They said, ‘Great! You can finally go to law school,’ ” said Na, now 34. “They didn’t get that I would want to do something physical.”

Na’s parents’ misgivings about blue-collar work turned into pure joy when Na scored a job in construction management that started at $75,000, with ample room for growth.

Na hit on something that more women are learning: The one place where everyone is guaranteed equal pay for equal work is on the construction site as a skilled labor worker, better known as a tradesperson. Tradespeople are electricians, plumbers, road crew members, contractors, industrial painters, and others in professions that have traditionally been worked by men. They earn higher wages without costly college degrees and, if they’re union jobs, will be guaranteed incremental raises based on time and experience.

Sure, all this sounds great. But in this magical egalitarian work society, women make up only 2.5 percent of skilled laborers in the U.S. A handful of organizations are actively changing that ratio by training the next generations of female workers—for free.

Na participated in a Los Angeles–based program called Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles, known as WINTER. The pre-apprenticeship coordinator for the program, Jesse Duran, explained that the pathway for all trades jobs is an apprenticeship, which is how a worker gets certified and receives hands-on experience with heavy machinery, such as table saws or pile drivers. Yet, to get an apprenticeship, a worker must already have experience with tools and machinery and have safety training from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The process can seem like a closed loop, even to men, because you have to have training to get training.

Duran, a former military recruiter, says he actively seeks out potential students, starting with the YouthBuild programs to get them young, because a girl who is told to put down that hammer or stop playing so rough may be getting cut off from the opportunity to gain experience before she even knows it exists.

The success rate is tiny, but the numbers are always improving, said Alexandra Torres Galancid, WINTER executive director, of her 13 years with the organization.

Between 20 and 25 students have graduated every quarter from WINTER since its founding 18 years ago, and they boast a job placement rate of 75 percent to 85 percent. Similar programs in Chicago, New York, and Portland, Ore., claim the same high success rates but have slightly smaller or larger classes. Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. graduated only 80 students last year but immediately placed 70 graduates in jobs.

These programs may not just be key to improving that 2.5 percent, but even that number may exist solely because of them.

Duran said his job placing women is getting easier. He asked the unions what they were looking for, and all said they want someone who can do the work, no matter what gender, and they meant it. Many bosses are clamoring to hire women in the trades, because companies like Avon have stipulated they need at least 15 percent of workers on building projects in New York City to be women.

“Going to OTI was more about finding a good personality fit. I went through college, got the job, had the office, had the business cards,” said Stephanie Ryznar, a former nonprofit administrator and a recent graduate of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. “And yet I felt like such an outsider. I’ve always had a hard time being ‘feminine,’ which I found through my office job can also translate to being ‘professional.’ ”

Ryznar now operates a pile driver, makes more money than she ever could with her college degree, and finally feels like herself—emotionally and physically—in the workplace.

All the women I spoke to at WINTER had similar stories of feeling pushed into traditionally feminine careers, where they might be considered “caregivers” but found they had no patience for paperwork or sitting. Pre-apprenticeship training is grueling physical work and no place for an ego.

Na said, “If they ask me to mop the floor on the job, as long as I’m getting the same paycheck as everyone else, I don’t care. I’ll do it.”

The programs are free, but you pay in “sweat equity,” and all participants have to take their turn mopping the floor. Even the executive director of WINTER has to remove her dress shoes and pick up a mop and bucket. It’s not for the faint of heart, but the payoff in a lifetime of secure, livable wages is considerable.

“When our students graduate, we’re looking for life-changing employment,” Duran said. “Around here, 'minimum wage' is a bad word.”