When Nettie Dokes moved to Seattle from Mississippi in 1987, she found a job as a lab manager that paid $9 an hour. That didn't seem like...

Share story

When Nettie Dokes moved to Seattle from Mississippi in 1987, she found a job as a lab manager that paid $9 an hour. That didn’t seem like much money for someone with a college degree in laboratory technology.

Then she saw an ad looking for apprentice line workers — the trade whose members make sure electricity gets from its source to homes and businesses. Apprentices made $11 an hour to start, with journeymen topping out at nearly $25. Now that was a living wage, she thought.

After a “rough” four-year apprenticeship that often made her want to quit, Dokes became in 1992 a pioneer in the trades — someone believed to be the first African-American woman in the country to graduate as a journeyman line worker.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Today there is just one woman working alongside every 100 linemen, making it one of the most male-dominated trades in the United States.

According to U.S. Department of Labor 2003 statistics, women make up less than 2 percent of line workers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers and brick masons. That’s far less than their presence in electrical engineering (7.2 percent), civil engineering (8.6 percent), or even the clergy (13.9 percent), jobs most people think of as lacking female representation.

Yet women have a proud history of doing such work in this country, and several local groups, such as Washington Women in Trades, are trying to steer more women toward this career path. (That group holds an annual trades fair — the next one is April 28, 2006.)

Women at work

Here are some organizations that can help women get jobs in the trades.

Washington Women in Trades: www.wawomenintrades.com, 206-903-9508,P.O. Box 837, Seattle, WA 98111-0837.

Oregon Tradeswomen: www.tradeswomen.net

Tradeswomen Now and Tomorrow: www.tradeswomennow.org

American Rosie the Riveter Association www.rootsweb.com/(tilde)usarra/

Why should women learn a trade?

“Cash, first and foremost,” answers Dokes, who worked as a linewoman for Seattle City Light for five years. She now manages City Light’s employment-training and apprenticeship programs.

Thanks to strong unions and demand for their skills, tradespeople command good living wages, averaging between $18 (for apprentices) to $35 an hour (for journeymen), plus full benefits. That easily trumps the minimum wage offered to most entry-level service workers.

“Trade people in general keep our infrastructure alive,” she says. “We need these individuals. You can’t outsource them.”

And instead of going deep into debt to pay for a college education, a tradesperson gets paid to learn — often up to $20 an hour plus benefits.

“We call apprenticeships the other four-year degree,” Dokes says.

“It’s extremely rewarding to work in a trade that’s applicable all over the world,” says Evelyn O’Connor, who is completing an apprenticeship in commercial carpentry. “I feel a lot of confidence that I can always make a living for myself. Things always need to be built, need to be fixed.”

But breaking into these almost-all-male groups can be daunting. Several tradeswomen talked about a “cultural clash” between the sexes: different styles of communication, work and interaction.

“That can be a real challenge,” O’Connor says. “It can be exciting, rewarding and tough, or it can be degrading and exhausting.”

Twenty years ago, when women started entering the trades in significant numbers, sexism was more blatant. It’s still present, but more subtle, the women say.

O’Connor tells the story of four men unloading 70-pound plywood sheets from a truck at a job site. They were unloading the wood a sheet at a time when she joined the group. As she picked up her first sheet, the guys stopped to see if she could handle it. When they saw that she could, the men started carrying two sheets at a time.

“I laughed,” she recalls. “I was so incredulous of their need to validate that they could do more than I could by killing themselves.”

When Dokes began her apprenticeship in 1988, her first crew chief complained that she had an “inability to learn.” She, too, was incredulous: “I had a college degree,” she says. “I didn’t have an inability to learn.”

After switching to another crew where she fit in better, she says she learned everything she needed to know to complete her apprenticeship.

Peggy Cook, 81, a retired house painter who lives in West Seattle, remembers an incident with the boss of a 28-person painting crew she was working with in Seattle.

He said “a really ugly thing” to her in front of the other men. She just looked at him, not saying a word. When the laughter died away, he just stood there. So did she.

Finally he said, “You look like my mother.” And she replied: “I think I’d like her.” He never bothered her again.

A jovial, spirited woman who still takes 5-mile daily walks, Cook was no stranger to hard work or working with men. As a teenager growing up in Kelso in the 1930s, she rafted logs with her grandfather and other men on the Cowlitz River while wearing spiked boots and wielding a pike.

Then for two years during World War II, she joined thousands of U.S. women — the “Rosie the Riveters” — who performed industrial and trade jobs to help win the war. She was part of an all-female crew near Port Townsend making anti-submarine nets.

Her advice for women thinking about learning a trade? Prepare yourself first by reading about that trade and understanding both the mental and physical requirements. She says many jobs are more demanding than people think.

Dokes agrees. She sees many apprenticeship applicants who don’t have the basic education required to get their feet in the door but says there are several programs available to prepare them. The jobs are out there — secure, steady, high-paying work for those with the will and energy to pursue them, she says.

For Dokes, despite the hardships of her first years, the experience of being a line worker made it all worthwhile.

“I love line work,” she says. “A storm blows in and you go to work. Sometimes I think of it in terms of bringing light. You take a city from being in total darkness to all the house lights and streetlights lighting up again. It’s an awesome thing.”