Women In Sustainable Employment (WISE) is a program designed to help single women who are heads of households find more sustainable employment and high-paying jobs to support their families.
Sponsored by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, the program introduces women to careers with high earning potential in the fields of energy and construction. Jobs in these sectors are traditionally male-dominated. Women participants often discover these careers for the first time at a WISE workshop.
“Every day we would get phone calls from women, from anywhere in their mid- to late-20s and up to their 50s, saying ‘I work, but I’m not earning enough to make a living,’” recalls WISE Pathways founder Terri Burgess Sandu, now the Director of Workforce Development at Lorain County Community College.
“They would say ‘I’m willing to work with my hands, but I’m not sure what I want to do.’ Those are very much the women we serve.”
Financial Literacy to Go With High-Paying Jobs for Women
During the program’s five weeks, it’s typical for a woman to obtain employment with a larger paycheck than she did at her previous job.
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For example, if we take the career of power line technician, one of the jobs outlined as a potential career path for the program’s participants, its average annual salary of roughly $50,000 a year is more than $30,000 higher than the national minimum wage.
As a result of program participants’ income increase across all career paths, WISE added a financial literacy component to the course, replete with five elements: financial wellness, budgeting, expense tracking, debt management, and emergency savings.
For many of the participants, this coursework in financial literacy is just as important as finding higher-paying employment.
For example, two of the participants were homeless and looking for housing for themselves and a child.
This desire to learn money management isn’t surprising in the context of the national financial literacy gap. Individuals without a bachelor’s degree scored nearly 20 percent worse on an assessment of financial literacy, and women in general score about 10 percent worse across all educational backgrounds, one assessment conducted by Stanford University found.
As such, once participants finish the program and attain a higher-paying job, they are faced with the challenge of managing more money. They face questions such as: Should I buy the things I want, but don’t necessarily need? Or should I save money for a future emergency?
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A Crisis-Mode Mindset
Many of these women are in a permanent crisis mode. They are used to reacting to an emergency only when it presents itself, rather than planning for it in advance. The lesson that needed to be taught in class was to anticipate future emergencies and plan accordingly.
Emergencies happen to all of us. Those who have money saved up in an emergency fund have done so knowing they will need it. In the WISE classes, 80 percent of the time is spent teaching, discussing, and acting out how to change financial habits.
Budgeting and Tracking Expenses
These women track their expenses each week to see — and understand — where they spend their money. This activity also allows WISE program leaders to look for areas that need change while encouraging participants to build new habits.
One woman would come to class three times a week with a 32-ounce soda purchased from a nearby gas station. This soda cost her 99 cents, so it was obvious that she was spending at least $15 a month on soft drinks. When she admitted that she bought one or two almost every day, a fellow classmate asked why she doesn’t buy two cases for $6 to $7 instead of spending $30.
Her response? “I like the way I feel walking into the gas station to buy it. I feel like it makes me look I’m in control of my life.”
That raised a great question for all of these women: “How many of us spend money on things based on how it makes us feel, or how we think it makes us look to others?”
To encourage habit change, the women are offered a reward (typically a gas card or grocery store gift card) if they make a change in their spending to save the difference.
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Pathways to the Future: Finding High-Paying Jobs for Women
While WISE Pathways provide a roadmap to low-income women seeking to increase their earnings, there are steps that any woman can follow to take advantage of the industries in their specific geographic region.
There are a number of regionally based trade and labor organizations throughout the country that help women find unique and nontraditional career opportunities that are tailor-made for each geographic region — among them are:
- Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) in New York City
- Vermont Works for Women (also offers STEM and trade exploration camps for girls)
- Chicago Women in the Trades
- Oregon Tradeswomen, who also run an annual career fair and pre-apprenticeship class for high-wage fields.
- University of Virginia Tradeswomen
There are also many organizations focused on teaching women financial literacy that provide free online resources:
“Low-income women who are looking to find a new career, one that pays better wages, need to walk through a set of key questions,” says Sandu. “Ask yourself:
- What are the high-paying jobs in my community?
- What do I have to do to compete for this position?
- If I need training, how can I get it?
- Are any of those jobs nontraditional for women?”
Finally — and possibly most importantly — Sandu stresses the necessary nature of finding a network of support.
“No matter what you do, you’re going to need support to succeed, both in getting the job through networking and staying in the job,” says Sandu. “Because once you land employment, especially if it’s a nontraditional role, you’re gonna face challenges — and having a good group of people around you can help you make it through hard days.”
If you’re interested in hosting a WISE Pathways workshop in your community, reach out to Bernadette Gosky at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find the program’s course materials online via SkillsCommons.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney