White males dominate trades

by Rachel Osterman | 8/20/01 5:00am

She may not have intended it, but Claire Walton is on the front lines of efforts to diversify one of the most stubbornly white and male-dominated areas of the College.

A recently hired locksmith, Walton is the only female employed in the skilled trades at Dartmouth. The diversity problem in the trades is so pronounced that until this December, only white men filled carpentry, heating, plumbing and locksmithing jobs -- the highest paying service positions on campus.

And as of yet, no people of color have entered these elite ranks.

"When they hired me, they said 'I don't know what it will be like to have a woman in the trades.' So I knew that I was the only woman when I got there," Walton said. "I haven't had any problems. They try to be gentlemen around me and they know I don't expect them to treat me any differently."

As the College becomes increasingly conscious of diversity at all levels of the institution, the skilled service sector has come under heightened scrutiny. No one has quotas to fill, but College officials are beginning to raise their eyebrows a little bit higher.

And so after years in which 81 of the most coveted service jobs have been held exclusively by white men, Dartmouth is moving to combat the homogeneity of the trades.

The College's efforts come in the form of a new apprenticeship program. Although the program won't do anything to alter the overwhelmingly white populations of New Hampshire and Vermont from which the College draws its staff, it aims to slowly give more women and people of color a chance at jobs that have historically been closed to them.

College officials point to the Upper Valley's lack of diversity in explaining the white and male-dominated character of the trades.

"Is the story that Dartmouth isn't committed? I don't think so. If we were Columbia or Penn, it would be a lot easier to diversify," Associate Director of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity Michelle Meyers said. "We know that the availability is so low, we should train women and minorities."

If all goes to plan, the apprenticeship program will start next month.

Two new jobs in carpentry and heating will be created, one of which will be reserved for a woman or a person of color. The College will pay to put those people through professional training.

Dartmouth has long struggled to diversify its staff. In unskilled areas such as food and lodging -- which is 56.5 percent female and minority -- the College has had more success than in the skilled crafts.

But the trades pose an acute dilemma. Both subtle and overt barriers have long kept women and minorities out of the skilled crafts. Some trade unions have a history of selecting their members on the basis of friendship and family networks, and the apprenticeship training system favors people with personal connections.

At the same time, those are the jobs that pay the most within the service sector: the starting Dartmouth salary in the trades is about $17 an hour, while that for a food cashier is $12.61.

The idea for an apprenticeship program has been around for some time. The College's service workers' union advocated such a training system for the better part of a decade, according to union president Earl Sweet.

"I've been after an apprenticeship program for a number of years," he said.

Until now, red tape has gotten in the way of implementing the apprenticeship program. Because trade certification is controlled at the state level, the College worked to navigate through the complications and paperwork of New Hampshire bureaucracy.

For Walton, who uses the BlitzMail nickname "locklady," being a minority has long been part of her job.

"There aren't that many female locksmiths to begin with," she said. "When I got into the business 15 years ago, I was the only woman at almost all of the training sessions I went to.

"People would look at me kind of funny at first, but once they realized I was serious about it, I didn't have a problem," Walton explained.

Walton, who worked in a Lebanon lock shop before arriving at Dartmouth in December, said the College was an attractive job option and has continued to offer a positive environment.

"The pay is great, the benefits are great, the people are good to work with. You don't turn something like that down," she said, adding: "People don't expect a woman to walk through the door, but as long as the job is done well and done right they don't care if I'm a man or a woman."