Program Helps Women Cash in on the Green Economy

The 2010 Women and Girls Summit seeks to help women break into construction, manufacturing and engineering careers so they won't be left behind in the green revolution.

These days everyone is talking about the new "green economy", about how green jobs are the future. Government and industry are putting billions of dollars into creating jobs in all shades of green, from solar-panel installers to electric-car builders, and Americans are clamoring to get them.

But when I asked Joceline Plantillas, a junior at Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose, to define green jobs, she said: "Green jobs? Those are jobs that men do."

You know what? Sadly, she's right. Women are in danger of being left out of the green revolution.

That's why 300 local policy makers and business and community leaders are gathering this week at the 2010 Women and Girls Summit at San Jose City Hall. They are determined to help women break into careers in construction, manufacturing and engineering so they won't be left behind.

Women make up nearly half the nation's work force today and are earning more than half the college degrees. Yet they still on average earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, in part because they don't go into traditionally all-male professions.

"Women are not going into careers that pay well," said Esther Peralez-Dieckmann, director of the county's Office on Women's Policy. "That concerns us because more and more families are depending on the woman's income."

Missing out

Today about 20 percent of college students going into engineering are women. But what about those who aren't drawn to math and science? Women hold only 2.6 percent of the construction jobs and 13.8 percent of the jobs in engineering and architecture, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Peralez-Dieckmann sees lots of potential there.

On Thursday, as a warm-up for the summit, she took a group of 20 participants to visit a pilot program at Mt. Pleasant High School that is introducing students to green building techniques with help from local members of the National Association for the Remodeling Industry. Vic Hageman, who teaches manufacturing and industrial technology classes at the school, explained how his class would remodel a 320-square-foot house using green materials and building techniques and then deconstruct it.

Hageman said only 18 of his 130 students are girls. But they more than hold their own.

"In general, I'd say the girls out-perform the boys hands down," he said.

That came as no surprise to the women on the tour. Of course the girls can learn to hammer nails and operate power tools as well as the guys. Just give them the chance.

"I remember when I learned to rewire a lamp and I was so proud of myself," said Suzanne Doty, a member of the county Commission on the Status of Women. "Then I was mad at my dad because he didn't teach me how to do those things. He taught my brothers, but not me."

Legos to tool trays

Despite attaching "men" to "green jobs," Joceline is personally remaking traditions by taking woodworking and metal shop classes at Mt. Pleasant. It comes natural to her. When she was a little girl, she loved to build things with Legos. Today she just loves to build real things, large and small.

"When we do a project here," she said, "we are making things that you really need -- like a tool tray -- not just things you look at."

I asked Adriana Hernandez, also a junior, if it was awkward being one of the few girls in the class.

"Naw," she said smiling. "Everybody's all good about it."

For Adriana, the class is more than just an elective to fill out her schedule.

"I'd like to go into construction, or something where I can work with my hands and create things," she said.

That's just what Cindy Carey, president-elect of the remodeling industry group, wants to hear.

"Not everyone is meant to get on that four-year college track," she said. "We need to get the word out that the trades are a viable profession if you don't want to sit behind a desk or at a computer all day."

And just as viable for women as for men.