Women in trades share career paths with Franklin Tech students

Lily Thompson talks about her career in the workforce to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’€™Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday.

Lily Thompson talks about her career in the workforce to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’€™Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Danielle Ellis talks about her career in the workforce to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday.

Danielle Ellis talks about her career in the workforce to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Short videos of the speakers preceded their talk about their vocation to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday.

Short videos of the speakers preceded their talk about their vocation to a group of students from Franklin County Technical School at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Students from Franklin County Technical School listen to women talk about their careers at the Ja’€™Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday.

Students from Franklin County Technical School listen to women talk about their careers at the Ja’€™Duke Center for the Performing Arts in Montague on Friday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-29-2023 7:18 PM

TURNERS FALLS — By connecting with women working in trades on Friday, Franklin County Technical School’s freshmen girls had the chance to consider what career paths might be right for them, potentially in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Gathered at the Ja’Duke Center for the Performing Arts, the students heard from 13 women working in a variety of trades — including construction, welding, firefighting, precision tool manufacturing, auto mechanics and more — about their careers in male-dominated occupations. The program was called “Tradeswomen of Tomorrow.”

“By hearing what these women speak about, it opens up what is available to the students,” said Franklin Tech Vocational Director Administrative Assistant Diana Wheeler.

While attending Franklin Tech, students choose a major or “shop” to be part of. These shops give them technical training for jobs in a variety of fields, including cosmetology, landscaping, plumbing, culinary arts and many more.

The freshmen have all gone through a pre-exploratory phase through which they visit every shop offered. They will now pick five shops to learn more about for one week, called an exploratory period. From there, they pick which shop they ultimately want to be a part of through graduation, at which time they often find a job in that field.

Wheeler noted there are many girls in all the shops at Franklin Tech, but exposing the freshman to all their options can help them get set up for success in a field they may never have expected to be interested in.

Many of the women participating in Friday’s panel worked at L.S. Starrett Co., a precision tool company based in Athol. This included Susan Roraback, who works as an assistant foreman in the assembly room. She said taking on her job shattered her expectations of what working in the trades could look like, and that not all manufacturing jobs involve working with large machinery as she had assumed.

“I did not know my job existed until I did my job,” she said, noting that being assistant foreman in the assembly room requires concentration and critical thinking.

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“You don’t have to be a worker in the trades,” added Alex Colonna, a member of the Painters and Allied Trades District Council, who recounted she dropped out of college during the 2008 recession.

After working in food service for eight years, she joined a painting apprenticeship program. Three years of apprenticeship and additional site work later, she was asked to be an organizer for the union.

“You can be a foreman, there is an avenue for that. You can be a superintendent, there is an avenue for that. If you like politics, there are avenues for that,” Colonna told the room of students about joining a trade. “We want to support you to help you grow on your journey. We want you to be successful.”

Turners Falls Fire Capt. Trisha Dana also spoke to the girls in the auditorium. She explained her job requires a lot of physical skill and her duties change daily.

When she started, she said women made up 1.5% of fire departments; now they make up 4%.

Also participating was 2019 Franklin Tech graduate Gwyn Clark. She said after graduating from college in Ohio, she moved back to Charlemont and started her own business repairing antique vehicles called Gwyn’s Garage.

Clark was part of Franklin Tech’s collision repair shop and she learned custom painting as part of the co-op program, experiences that launched her to where she is today.

Ziven Drake, technical coordinator for the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, advised the Franklin Tech students to try new things and “get out of their comfort zones.”

“Have sincere conversations with your families and yourselves about what you want to do,” Drake said. “There are times in your career when you are exploring and you won’t like what you are doing; that is OK.”

Many of the women speaking echoed the sentiment that while office work is glamorized, they work with their hands and love what they do.

“What I do is not glamorous,” said Dawn Kazokas, who works for All States Materials Group. “I feel proud to be part of structures in buildings and roads and people’s homes. There are so many opportunities at any level. Never think you can’t keep going up.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.