New law expected to help women compete for traditionally male jobs

Working women

March 09, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

The first federal law passed to guarantee women access to training in non-traditional jobs takes effect in July -- and it is expected to be a powerful tool in breaking down occupational segregation.

With one clear stipulation, the Non-traditional Employment for Women Act amends the Job Training Partnership Act, the federally funded program for the poor, in a way that will enable low-income women to get well-paying jobs.

All localities that receive money under the job-training act must have specific plans to increase the number of women in training programs for non-traditional jobs.

Non-traditional jobs are those in which females hold 25 percent or fewer of the positions. Only 9 percent of women in programs covered by the job-training act are trained in male-dominated jobs such as electronics technician, construction worker and plumber.

Those jobs generally pay 30 percent more than traditional female jobs such as file clerk, secretary, cosmetologist and nurse's aide.

"Women have done well in existing [Job Training Partnership Act] programs, going from ground zero to jobs that pay as much as $6 an hour," said Elsie Vartanian, director of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor. "But in view of the changing technology and skills required by the year 2000, we support training that gives women a competitive edge for better-paying jobs. Despite all our efforts, women work at a disadvantage because there still is not pay equity."

The bureau, which advises the labor secretary on issues involving the nation's 56 million women in paid employment, does not lobby.

"But once this bill was introduced, we picked up the ball and ran with it," Ms. Vartanian said. "We want to break down stereotypical attitudes about non-traditional jobs on the part of women, employers, unions and organizations. We want to make certain women are being considered for these positions and are properly trained for them.

"It takes a successful program to help women get non-traditional training," Ms. Vartanian said. The new act establishes a four-year demonstration project in which $1.5 million a year of job training act funds will be earmarked for six states each year to introduce training for women in non-traditional jobs.

The Women's Bureau will begin reviewing proposals in July, and by 1996, 24 states will have programs, Ms. Vartanian said.

That low-income women should be trained by the government in non-traditional jobs is a giant step forward in moving women into economic self-sufficiency.

And it didn't happen by itself. It took a great deal of planning, lobbying and coalition building. Spearheading the drive was the National Commission on Working Women, the board of advisers for Wider Opportunities for Women, a national women's employment advocacy group based in Washington.

Other supporters were the National Tradeswoman's Network, the National Governor's Association and the National Displaced Homemakers Network.

"We've monitored the Job Training Partnership Act since it was passed in 1982, and in 1989 we began to look at what could be done to improve women's wages," said Cindy Marano, executive director of Wider Opportunities. "There are about 37 non-profit, non-traditional skills training programs for women around the country, but they train fewer than 6,000 women a year. No state has a complete, statewide system of non-traditional training for women."

In 1989, Ms. Marano testified at hearings of a Senate subcommittee on labor headed by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. In 1990, Mr. Metzenbaum and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, introduced the bill in the Senate. In the House, it was supported by Reps. Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, and George Miller, D-Calif. It was passed in November and signed into law in December.

"The most important issue in the bill is the requirement that every local area, every Private Industry Council that receives JTPA funds must develop a training plan and report its progress annually," said Ms. Marano, who sits on a local council in Washington. "The goal is to make the entire system focus on training women for non-traditional jobs, not just on a project that might run for one year and then go away."

The law, she said, is not only to serve women or to move women out of clerical work. "It's designed to get women into existing programs that serve only men," Ms. Marano said.

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