PRESQUE ISLE – Local girls were building bridges out of Popsicle sticks and operating heavy machinery Wednesday as they explored trade occupations during the fourth annual Tools ‘n Trades conference.
More than 100 girls from Fairfield to Fort Kent attended the Tools ‘n Trades event at Northern Maine Community College.
The conference exposes eighth-grade and high school girls to careers in trades and technology, such as plumbing and metal fabrication, Suzanne Senechal-Jandreau, regional manager of the Central Aroostook office of Women, Work and Community said Wednesday.
“We want girls to be able to try out different experiences that they may not have as options at their schools and that they may not have had the opportunity to explore,” Senechal-Jandreau said. “These are high-wage and high-opportunity careers.”
They’re also nontraditional occupations for women, which means females make up less than 25 percent of the individuals employed in the vocation. But those women who are employed in the vocations earn 20 percent to 30 percent more than women in traditional jobs.
On Wednesday, girls had the whole day to explore careers such as carpentry, firefighting and trauma surgery. They also attended a fashion show featuring women employed in nontraditional fields and a panel discussion by several women working in trade and technical occupations.
Senechal-Jandreau said what organizers hope girls realize by attending the event is that they can do these jobs and that there are people behind them, ready to offer support.
If Rylee Graham of Ashland is any indication of the group, then the event just might be working.
“It’s neat that girls have the opportunity to come here and experience the same things guys can do,” the 14-year-old said Wednesday after briefly stepping away from a plumbing workshop.
She’s considering a medical career, but said plumbing seems interesting, too.
The TNT conference was created in 2003 by community partners in the Aroostook Coalition for Women and Girls in Trades and Technology. Partners include Women Unlimited, the Maine Career Center, local contractors, local school representatives, NMCC and the Maine Department of Transportation.
“We got together a group of people interested in exposing girls to nontraditional careers and said, ‘What can we do?'” Senechal-Jandreau said.
And the conference was born.
At the fourth annual event, teens stood in a parking lot, grinning, as they waited for their chance to operate pieces of heavy machinery.
Shiela Conroy, a heavy equipment operator for 11 years, has been attending the TNT conference since its inaugural year.
“I do this to show the girls they can do anything they want to do,” Conroy said Wednesday during a break from showing girls how to run a steel roller.
Last year, Conroy said she worked with a girl who really enjoyed operating the equipment and said she might like to do it for a career. That, Conroy said, makes it all worthwhile.
“I wish there were more women who would come out and do it,” she said. “They say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ But they probably can, they’re just scared. I just try to encourage the girls to at least try it.
“You never know until you try.”