Apprentice Program helps women seeking nontraditional employment
Photo by Dan Addison
|Nikki R. Patterson went through the Apprentice Program and is now a certified electrician.
By Matt Kelly
Three women at U.Va. work in traditionally male trades and love it.
“It can’t get any better than this,” said Cynthia K. Campbell, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician apprentice.
Nikki R. Patterson, a certified electrician, enjoys the “hands-on” aspects and the thrill of working with electricity, while Tammy P. Dean, who rejected being an electrician because she’s “klutzy and my hair is already curly,” works as a plumber, learning the “lost art” of steam fitting.
Each woman learned her trade through the University’s Apprentice Program, which combines on-the-job training and classroom work. Each is also the sole female practitioner of her trade at the University, which does not bother them.
“I really don’t give it much thought,” said Patterson, 33, who has always been attracted to nontraditional roles. “The guys treat me like one of the guys. The fact that I am a woman has nothing to do with anything.”
Campbell, 42, a former Marine, said her co-workers do not treat her differently. Everyone is treated equally in the Marines, she said.
“I’ve been in an environment of men most of my life,” Campbell said.
Patterson and Dean, 42, have graduated from the University’s Apprentice Program, which Campbell has recently started. The program, the first in the state, has graduated about 90 students since 1982, roughly 80 percent of whom still work at the University, according to Donna Barnes Franko, director of human resources and training at Facilities Management.
“We can grow our own trades people,” she said. Apprentices learn the University while learning their trades, Franko said, so at graduation, they are fully familiar with their work environment. Being University-sponsored also instills loyalty into the employees.
Campbell is the lone female in the current group of 27 apprentices in the four-year program. Todd E. Cook, apprenticeship representative for the Department of Labor and Industry, said this is not unusual for nontraditional jobs across the state. While there are apprentice programs for secretaries, nail technicians and cosmetologists, trades that are almost entirely female, he said few women are attracted to the industrial trades.
Growing up, Patterson had helped her father work on cars, but later took up her electrician uncle’s trade. Now, among other duties, she tests and maintains 37 generators the University has ready in case of electrical outage.
Campbell, who had wanted to be a psychologist, also had mechanical aptitude. Lacking the money to complete college, she joined the Marines, staying for nine years before leaving in 1993, part of the post-Gulf War downsizing. A series of factory jobs, and subsequent layoffs, convinced her to seek a more secure trade. She applied to the Apprentice Program through several sponsors, eventually being accepted at U.Va. in 2005.
While Patterson and Campbell joined the University workforce through the Apprentice Program, Dean had already worked in dining services and housekeeping and saw plumbing as an advancement. While the courses at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center were difficult, Dean said her children motivated her. Dean works at the Medical Center, which provides many different work environments, from maintaining the steam pipes to servicing lines that pump nitrous oxide, water and oxygen into patients’ rooms. A self-described “people person,” Dean enjoys new challenges and different people every day.
Franko wants to hire more women for the industrial trades Apprentice Program, and actively promotes it; there are no females in the current applicant pool. Franko said women have to overcome a cultural stereotype.
“Some [women] think it’s sexier to be a haristylist,” Franko said.
Cook praised the University’s program, a model throughout the state. There are approximately 2,000 employers in the state offering an apprentice program.
“When [Vice President and Chief Operating Officer] Leonard Sandridge attends the induction and reunion lunches, that shows how important the apprentices are to the operation,” Cook said. “That is the recipe for success.”
Patterson was apprehensive at first about becoming an apprentice because “I never did well being told what to do.” But she graduated with a B average. This encouraged her to return to school for an electrical contractor’s license. Her fiancé, who was killed earlier this year in a motorcycle accident, had encouraged her in this. While her training could help her start her own business, Patterson has no plans to leave the University. “It would be like leaving my entire family,” she said.
Dean will work out her career at U.Va. Eligible to retire in eight years, she wants to write children’s books, fulfilling an ambition she’s had since before getting married and having children.
Campbell, who is currently mentored by Apprentice Program graduate Felix W. Crawford, also plans to make a career of the University, saying loyalty is very important to her. And she enjoys the work.
“This is the first time I have felt really good since I left the Marines,” she said.