A job of one’s own

Women hired into traditionally male roles in still-languishing Southwest Washington

Angela Mercer owns her own property preservation company cleaning and maintaining foreclosed homes. She recently obtained a job through WorkSource Vancouver, performing property management and maintenance for a local apartment complex, a position typically held by a man. She’s says she’s not alone.

“I’ve heard men complain that women are getting jobs that they [the men] should be getting. I have a girlfriend who is a roofer,” said Mercer.

On just her second day with WorkSource, in a class of five women and 12 men, Mercer was the only participant who raised her hand when a recruiter asked if there was anyone with painting, maintenance and property management experience. Within two weeks, Mercer was offered the position, along with housing. She said that although two other people – both men – applied for the position, she was the one granted the interview and the job.

According to data from the Economic Opportunity Institute, a public policy research and advocacy organization that focuses on improving economics for working families, women in Vancouver are getting hired at higher rates than the 2011 industry ratio of female to male. For example, in construction, women typically make up 8.7 percent of the workforce in Vancouver – however, in the first three quarters of 2012 (the most recent data available), 15 percent of construction new hires in Clark County were women. Other industries with markedly higher ratios include agriculture and forestry, manufacturing, and wholesale trade.

This data tends to corroborate a national trend identified by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which released a report in early September stating “job growth remained anemic in August for men, but accelerated for women. Of the 169,000 total jobs added to nonfarm payrolls in August, women gained 125,000 jobs (74 percent) while men gained 44,000 jobs (26 percent).”

However, looking at employment in Clark County as a whole (not just percent of new hires), Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department, said that in the “recovery” from the second quarter of 2010 through the fourth quarter of 2012, overall male employment grew by 7.1 percent, while overall female employment grew by only 2.4 percent. The number of working-age women grew by 3.3 percent during this period, so jobs did not keep up with population growth for women. Examining the data for just 2012, Bailey said, male employment was up 4 percent while female employment was up only half that amount.

The picture in Cowlitz County is more bleak, said Bailey. In the “recovery” through the fourth quarter of 2012, male employment grew by a mere 2.7 percent, while female employment continued to fall by 2.2 percent. The net employment loss in Cowlitz County since the downturn began is -4.3 percent for males (-7.5 percent after adjustment for population growth), and -7.2 percent for females (-10.9 percent after population adjustment).

Although the local numbers don’t fully mesh with the IWPR numbers – it stated that on a national level the unemployment rate for women aged 16 and older decreased slightly, to 6.8 percent in August from 7.0 percent in July while the unemployment rate for men aged 16 and older remained steady at 7.7 percent – local women are finding jobs.

Tina Wixon, a resident of Cowlitz County, took advantage of Washington’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program and the Workforce Adjustment Act when she was laid off after 15 years from a union job at a pulp and paper mill in Longview.

“I had always wanted to be a nurse, but could never afford to do that,” said Wixon. So, when she was laid off, she decided to follow her dream. Four years later, she holds an RN, and found a supervisory job only six weeks after graduating.

Wixon said that a broad set of skills, and experience gained as an LPN while finishing the nursing program, helped her land a good job.

“At the mill, I worked on the paper machines, but also in the lab and did a lot with computers. I’d been in panic situations and had critical thinking skills.”

Mercer, too, vouched for the advantage of bringing transferrable skills to a new job.

“Transferrable, bundled skills is what’s going to get women into the workforce on a different level than before,” said Mercer, who added that her social science degree, a bachelor’s in psychology, and two children with ADHD all help her deal with emergency situations and excel at collaborative problem solving.

“I saw a spark in the eye of the interviewer when I was able to prove these along with my labor ability,” Mercer said.

Mercer and Wixon exemplify the opportunities that exist in the workforce for women in southwestern Washington – but to grasp these opportunities, women have to be willing to work hard, and “the funding for people to retrain is invaluable,” said Wixon.

“Tenacity is in full force with women in the workforce,” said Mercer. “I see it in women now, completely different than previously. And women are being acknowledged differently for their abilities.” 

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