Outreach Project Seeks to Involve More Native Americans in the Trades

With the boom in public works construction projects across Oregon, a career in the trades is one of the most promising and lucrative professions. In 2004, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) contracted with CooperZietz Engineers to develop a program to raise awareness and interest in the trades among Native Americans. The initiative has been a huge success, and additional funding for the program was recently approved.

Penny Painter, Workforce Development Specialist, CooperZietz Engineers Inc.

At the forefront of the initiative is Penny Painter, Workforce Development Specialist for CooperZietz Engineers, Inc. Working with Oregon tribes and state apprenticeship programs and private firms, Painter has leveraged her experience in the trades and employment skills expertise to attract more Native Americans to get training in the various trades. The outreach program is funded through a contract with ODOT-Office of Civil Rights

"I love my job. I’m totally blessed, I have a job that enables me to help people succeed," she said. "We need workers in the construction trades; more than half of the trades people working in Oregon will soon reach retirement age. It’s also important for us to increase minority participation in the trades."

According to the State of Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries, 73 Native Americans were enrolled in state apprenticeship programs before the grant period began in April 2004.

Last April, that number has more than doubled to include 156 Native Americans involved in apprenticeship programs, working in the field.

Painter, who has worked as a carpenter for 23 years, has first-hand knowledge about what it takes to be successful in the trades. She visits the different tribes to host information sessions and seminars about starting a career in the trades. "It’s important for people to understand that it is physically demanding work and you work in all types of weather, but working in the trades is also about teamwork. For a project to be successful, you must be willing to do whatever it takes to be a productive part of that team," she says.

Painter shares her knowledge about services and training opportunities for those who want to learn the skills necessary for ironwork, sheet metal, carpentry, electrical and many more. “When I talk to individuals, I provide advice about career opportunities in the trades and figure out ways to get them started on an apprenticeship path. Typically, I ask them to choose at least three different career options to research, then they explore those options for best fit their lifestyle and goals.”

Painter emphasizes that she "tells it like it is" during information sessions: she talks seriously about doing vast research and making a good informed decisions related to the trade they choose. "It’s important for people to know exactly what they’re getting into; otherwise, we will be setting them up for failure."

Before joining CooperZietz, Painter worked for a number of years at Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., which seeks to promote the success of women in the trades through education, leadership and mentorship. With her background in workforce development Painter employs her vast network to connect potential trades apprentices with resources and information to get started. Many people – especially women and people of color – don’t know there are many resources out there available to help them.

"I’m a ‘resource-fanatic’ and believe in pooling resources with other agencies so we can provide the client with what they need in order to be successful."

Moving forward, Painter is thrilled that the project has recently been funded to continue for one more year. "There is a huge need in the industry for skilled workers, and a need for more minorities and women in those jobs. I’m glad that I’m able to open doors of opportunity for people who have an interest in trades and construction work," she says.

Contact Penny Painter for more information about the program.

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