Women on board New program prepares women for careers in ship repair

In early March, 18 women gathered for the first week of a pre-apprenticeship program designed to catapult them into in-demand careers in the ship repair industry.

Run by the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, the 12-week, intensive Women in Skilled Careers (WISC) program offers training tracks in welding, marine coating, marine electrical, outside machinist, sheet metal fabrication and pipefitting.

Then the COVID-19 outbreak intervened, forcing the program to postpone classes until it’s safe to gather again.

In the meantime, says Virginia Career Works Deputy Director Latonya English, her team is fine-tuning the program and taking applications for future courses. They’re also staying in touch with the eight women who were part of the first class, seven of whom are currently employed in the ship repair industry in Hampton Roads. Most came from the restaurant and hospitality industries, which have laid off tens of thousands of local workers. “One of the things that made us sit back and think is how important this is for women,” especially in terms of job security, English says.

The workforce council prioritizes admissions for veterans, women living in poverty and women who’ve experienced homelessness, domestic violence or human trafficking. Organizers provide child care, transportation and a weekly stipend.

“What we’re doing is total wraparound services,” says Karen Miller, program coordinator of the Apprenticeship Institute at Tidewater Community College, where the program is based.

Last June, Miller attended a seminar about labor shortages in Hampton Roads, where the topic du jour was the lack of skilled workers to fill jobs in the ship repair industry.

“I’m sitting there, looking around the room, thinking, ‘How come nobody’s talking about women?’” says Miller, who soon applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. WISC received a $500,000 grant, allowing the group to launch the program in January.

Bill Crow, president of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, met with executives in the industry to see whether they’d help with training and later consider the program’s graduates for jobs. “They were all champing at the bit to do that,” he says.

Women who learn a skilled trade, Crow stresses, will have little trouble finding employment in the ship repair industry. “It’s a very rewarding industry,” he says. “It’s something that they will be able to take enormous pride in and, in the process, make darn good wages.”

The first cohort of eight students included Nikki Ruffin, a 33-year-old mother of four daughters. In the early weeks of WISC, Ruffin learned about topics such as financial literacy, while brushing up on her writing and math skills. She earned a certification in Emergency First Response and took Occupational Safety and Health Administration training. Later, classes moved to TCC, where Ruffin learned to weld.

The stipends allowed Ruffin to quit her job as a medical assistant and certified nursing assistant, since her work conflicted with the classes.

For Ruffin — who spent years trying to evade her abuser, now behind bars — the emotional support she received from WISC’s organizers and her fellow students was every bit as essential as the financial assistance. “We all helped each other out,” she says.

Since finishing WISC, Ruffin has received multiple job offers and she will likely start as a welder’s helper until welding apprenticeship classes start. Her dream is to be an underwater welder. First, though, Ruffin needs to learn how to swim. “Hopefully when the Y opens up, I can work on it,” she says, laughing.

Her daughters, like the women in her class, have been supportive of her career change and are rooting for her and her fellow WISC students, Ruffin says. “We all pitch in together and give each other encouraging words. … They’re really good women.”