Not Just Jobs -- Good Jobs: New Study Looks at Nontraditional Job Training Programs for Low-Income Women

Imagine working 50 or 60 hours a week and still not being able to provide the most basic necessities for your family. Imagine that, after an exhausting shift, you spend the long bus ride home grateful for the neighbor who was willing to watch your child today, but keeping your fingers crossed that the voucher you need to pay for preschool will come through soon. Underneath that is the persistent worry that your pantry will be empty before your next paycheck comes. You go to bed exhausted, but wishing that you could do more for your family.

This is reality for millions of Americans who work hard but still can't make ends meet, much less get ahead. Here in our nation's capital, for example, a woman working full-time at minimum wage will earn just over $17,000 per year. This doesn't go very far in a city where the average cost for center-based infant care is over $10,000 a year and the average cost to rent an apartment is $1,600 per month -- over $19,000 annually.

Simply put, having a job is often not enough. Without good jobs that provide family-sustaining wages and career pathways, families will be unable to lift themselves out of poverty and move into the middle class. The myth in this country is that if you work hard enough and long enough and live within your means, you'll get there. But reality is far more complex. At Washington Area Women's Foundation, we are helping hard-working women tap into the resources that will enable them to obtain jobs that will lead to economic security and a brighter future. As the number of women who are the primary or sole breadwinners in their households continues to rise, this has become more important than ever.

For the past eight years, we've been looking at nontraditional jobs as a way for women to earn more and have better opportunities for career progression, even during tough economic times. Nontraditional jobs for women include sectors like construction, manufacturing, transportation, uniformed services, telecommunications, and information technology. These are sectors where women make up less than 25 percent of the labor force.

The Foundation made strategic investments in programs training women for and placing them in nontraditional jobs because those occupations typically pay more than those traditionally classified as "female jobs" - often as much as 20 to 30 percent more - and are more likely to offer well-defined career paths and good benefits. These types of strategic investments work - but only when they're part of a broader workforce development strategy, responsive to the particular barriers faced by women.

On June 6, The Women's Foundation will examine investments in programs that served more than 3,500 women when we release a new case study called Lessons Learned & Recommendations for the Field: A Case Study of Nontraditional Job Training Programs for Women. Before the report is released on our website on the 6th - - I want to preview three key highlights:

  1. We need to address persistent barriers to work. Low-income women with children face a range of barriers that affect their ability to complete training programs and stay employed, particularly in nontraditional jobs. Transportation, securing child care services, criminal records, housing insecurity, and domestic violence were among the barriers we identified. By providing case management, support services and utilizing referral networks, we can help individuals identify these barriers and access resources that will enable them to manage those challenges and remain in training programs or maintain employment.

  • We need to close the basic skills gap. Low educational attainment rates are one of the most pervasive challenges facing low-income women. Research shows that by 2018, 72 percent of all jobs in Washington, DC will require some sort of post-secondary education or training. In a previous study, the Foundation revealed that 35 percent of women in DC have only a high school degree or less. We can better prepare low-income women for the workforce by including basic education in job training programs for adults and by using innovative strategies to reduce the time they have to spend in developmental education classes before being admitted into credit-bearing programs.
  • We should build partnerships with community colleges. In addition to being equipped to meet the needs of nontraditional students, community colleges are often important partners in training-to-jobs bridge programs and have well-established relationships with employers and industry groups. Some of the Foundation's grantees have partnerships with local community colleges that enable program participants to earn college credits during the job training program or easily enroll in the school after completing their job training.
  • In my work with Washington Area Women's Foundation, I have met far too many women who seem to be running a marathon on a treadmill -- they're working so hard, but aren't getting anywhere. And one misstep could be disastrous. Good jobs will mean better lives for them, their families, and as a result, our communities. And we can start by reducing the barriers to those jobs and helping women acquire the skills they need to be successful in these positions.

    On the 6th, we'll be presenting the case study at a forum on strategies for improving the economic security of low-income women and girls. For more details and to read the case study after the release, please visit us at