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Toolbox Program Builds Strong Foundation and Breaks Gender Barriers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows very few women work in skilled trades. Even though they represent about 47% of America's workforce, only 3% serve as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers. The number is even lower for the heating and cooling industry.

This summer, one program is trying to break these gender barriers. Siouxland Public Media's Sheila Brummer takes us to the Toolbox, a partnership between Girls Inc. and other local organizations, including Western Iowa Tech.

Toolbox Program Builds Strong Foundation for the Future

The strike of a hammer builds enthusiasm for 11-year-old Kim Nguyen and her classmates from Girls Inc. of Sioux City.

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Kim Nguyen, 11 - Sioux City, IA

"I have been going there for three years. I have never had this Toolbox Program before, so I'm very excited."

“Good morning, ladies!”

This hands-on learning is also new for Kevin Wookman, who usually oversees older students, a majority, 95% men.

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WITCC's Kevin Wookman

"The things you are taught today will be used for the rest of your life."

Wookman leads the apprentice and building trades program at Western Iowa Tech Community College, where part of the instruction takes place.

"This is something we don't typically do, but it's really cool. We get to show women there's a place for them in the trades as well."

Trades like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, heating, and cooling, where one day a week for a month, Toolbox teaches the girls, like 10-year-old Ariah Walker, these different disciplines.

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Ariah Walker, 10 - Sioux City, IA

“They're having us screwing a screw into a board and then reversing."

“It's kind of hard, and your hands get tired after a while, but it's fun."

“We want them to be able to know the furnace filter needs to be changed, or something drops in a trap or an aerator in a facet. Things as simple as hanging a picture, doing a flower box project, something that will empower these young ladies to do that," said Wookman.

The program is a hit for others as well, including the adults.

"My name is Sara Larson, I'm with Girls Inc., and I'm working this the Toolbox Program this year."

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Girls Inc.'s Sarah Larson

Larson says the lessons match the mindset of the non-profit organization.

"The mission is to be strong, smart, and bold, honestly. This is giving them more tools to be confident within their selves."

“It's a great way for them to be part of it and see different jobs they could have as they get older."

"I'm the only one I know. There might be some more the next semester."

Michele Verros personifies that tenacity and strength as she finds herself the only female among a group of fifty other welding students. A move she pursued a couple of years after high school.

"I pushed it off, and it might not be a good idea because I am a girl.

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Michele Verros - WITCC Student

"I say my goal is to find a job that is good paying. In welding, there are many opportunities to travel."

"You could be anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000 coming out of an associate's program today and trades program. Some welders are in the six digits in the first year. It's all you want to put into it and what to get out of it. The sky is the limit."

Verros, a down-to-earth type of person, shares her story of grit with the girls.

"I needed to get my life on track, and I need to find a job."

"Wish I could have done something like this. I feel like it is mainly a man's job, and I think it makes women scared to do something different. Maybe, this will stick with them and make them say this is something I want to do when I grow up."

Even at a young age, both Kim and Ariah have an idea of what they want as adults and how this training fits into that blueprint.

"I want to be an architect when I'm older, so I want a little bit of experience."

"I want to be a teacher when I grow up. If the class is learning about engineering and building, I could teach them."

"It's just cool to see that they are taking all that information and absorbing it so well and relating it to things they can do in their own life,” said Wookman.

As students nail their marks this summer, their mentor, Kevin Wookman, believes in this early education.

"The whole goal is to plant a seed at a young age and show them that the trades can be fun.”

Fun today while laying a serious foundation for the future.

"You better take notes because we'll take a quiz later. The look on your face is priceless."

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WITCC's Kevin Wookman "quizzes" Toolbox students on hammers

The Toolbox program continues through the first week of August for the 70 Girls Inc. members from ages 9 to 14. Other community partners helping with instruction include WA Klinger, CW Suter, Foulk Brothers Plumbing and Heating, Thompson Election, Hilti Tools, U.S. Cellular, and Local 948 North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Girls Inc. plans to continue the experience in the fall with other careers, including journalism.

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INTERVIEW: Girls Inc. Executive Director Mandy Engel-Cartie talks about Toolbox
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Sheila Brummer returns to her radio roots as a Reporter/Special Projects Producer for Siouxland Public Media KWIT-KOJI.