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Ten years later: One woman's journey from the first B-FIT class of '89
Photos and Story by James Hill
By Susan Hereford
Photo: For 10 years, PCC’s pre-apprenticeship training program has been giving grads a leg up in the building trades. Here, electrician Donna Ainsworth, 1989 B-FIT graduate, teaches first-year apprentice electricians.
One morning in 1989, Donna Ainsworth, a grocery checker for five years, was home taking care of her toddler and tuned into "A.M. Northwest," the local TV talk show. PCC people and industry types were announcing a new trades training program, soon to be launched with federal funding. They were looking for interested women.
"I don’t watch that much TV and I never watched that program," said Ainsworth 10 years later, still surprised at how the mundane event became her turning point and then changed her life for good.
Ainsworth knew she had to go back to work.
She’d been at home since her baby girl was born, but staying home wasn’t an option. She had two other girls, one in elementary and the other in middle school, and needed to help support the family.
But there were lots of questions. Could she juggle child care, her then-husband’s up-and-down salary making drill bits, and train for six months with no wages? If Ainsworth made it through training, would she like working construction? What about working side-by-side with the men? Would they respect her, just let her do her job? And even though the program offered help with apprenticeship placement, there were no guarantees. It sounded risky. But Ainsworth didn’t want to go back to the grocery store. She wanted to gamble.
"It’s been a wild ride, but a successful one," she said emphatically of her decision 10 years ago to enter the B-FIT training program, apprentice as an electrician, and ultimately earn both her journeymen’s and general supervisor’s licenses.
"I would never, never have imagined 10 years ago that I would be making this much money," she laughed. "I’ve sent my two older daughters through trade schools, bought my own home in a great neighborhood, supported myself.
"And I love my work. I love what I do … I like a finished product. Hey, I built a bridge. How many people, women, can say that to their children?"
After her B-FIT graduation in 1990, Ainsworth entered the electrician’s apprenticeship program, deciding on the electrical trades because, she shrugged, "They called."
Her first construction job, which lasted on and off for 2 years, was at an industrial site — the 2000-foot-long Alsea Bay bridge in Waldport. She moved into a $40 week rooming house across the street from the bridge with the other two women on the job, one a heavy equipment operator, the other a concrete finisher.
It was tough, physical work and apprentices are the grunts on a job, she explained, digging ditches, pulling heavy wire through concrete tunnels. Now and again, Ainsworth said she ran into men who belittled her, most likely ones who were rawer recruits than she.
Weekends she went home to her children who were 4, 10 and 12 when she started — and husband, who had become a house husband. "It was a role reversal," she said of her working and him staying home. "I missed a lot of my children’s lives. School plays, games," she sighed.
But the work got easier, the pay got better and she got commercial apprentice jobs in the Portland area with hours that allowed her to be home when her kids came home from school.
Bottom line, she wasn’t cut out to work in "a little cubicle and be a matchbox doll," she said of her decision to stick with the training.
In the last 10 years, Ainsworth has worked on commercial, industrial and now residential sites throughout the Portland metro area. She even helped install the streetlights on main street in Sandy (Ore.). Now she’s giving back. In addition to working full time as a residential electrician, she’s teaching first-year rookies several nights a week, running classes like conduit pipe bending.
One recent night found her teaching a group of 13, including one woman. "I love this," Ainsworth exulted, gesturing to the classroom.
Her teaching style combines toughness with an earthy humor and helpfulness. For example, one student learned very quickly that strolling in twenty minutes after the class had started was not acceptable.
"You’re late," she said, while the rest of the class went quiet. "I can’t take time to explain. You’ll have to pick it up from one of the other students."
Of the B-FIT class of ’89, Ainsworth said that the women brought varying degrees of aptitude and commitment to the training. But there was a camaraderie and shared goals. They were pioneers and they knew it.
"B-FIT gave me a chance to see what every trade was like, from iron working to concrete, carpentry, electrical. I got chance the to try out hand tools," she said.
The confidence building was just as important. "John and Judy (Fulton and Campagna, B-FIT building construction and electrical-mechanical instructors) built me up. They were absolutely fantastic. Out of the 55 women that started the program that year, almost all of them finished," said Ainsworth.
"We had every opportunity."
B-FIT at a glance
What: B-FIT (Building Futures in Industry and Trades), Portland Community College six-month pre-apprenticeship training that focuses on preparing women and minorities for the trades. In 1994, B-FIT opened its program to both men and women.
When: B-FIT was founded in 1989 with a $312,000, 18-month demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Why: A government study, Workforce 2000, showed that by the year 2000 the majority of new entrants into the work force would be women and minorities. The PCC program was designed by a consortium of metro-area representatives from education, construction, labor, industry and government to provide a fast-track, hands-on total immersion training program for women.
Goals: To broaden interest in the trades, to prepare women for apprenticeship or entry-level employment, to provide job placement and follow-up assistance.
Awards:1990 — LIFT America Award from then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole. One of 16programs chosen by the U.S. Dept. of Labor from a field of 520 nominees across the country. The award recognized "innovative and successful American programs that contribute to increasing the quality of the work force."
1992 — Recognized by the American Association of Women in Community and Junior Colleges as an outstanding model program.
PCC received a $1.4 million training grant to establish a regional workforce training center modeled on B-FIT.
Funding: After the first year, B-FIT has been funded by the PCC general fund.
Bottom Line: 1989-1999 approximately 650 graduates who are represented in all phases of private and public building trades.
Contact: PCC Rock Creek, 614-7255.