Vermont Works for Women: Connecting Women and Girls to the Transformative Power of Work

By David T. Applegate, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

TJat Intervale 2014

The impacts of poverty are deeply felt across racial and gender divides – but there is no denying that poverty is a particularly important issue for women. The numbers don’t lie: there are nearly 18 million women living in poverty in the United States and women are twice as likely as men to retire into poverty.

Vermont Works for Women (VWW) was founded 27 years ago with the intent of bridging the gender gap in employment – particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields like carpentry, plumbing, and other trades. Over time, VWW’s mission has expanded and evolved to a broader focus of promoting economic independence for women and girls.

Recently, Rachel Jolly – director of women’s programs at VWW – took the time to talk with the National Initiatives team about the employment services provided by VWW to women and girls in Vermont. In our interview, we discussed VWW’s emphasis on meeting individual participants where they are at in their employment and educational needs and the importance to the economy of increasing and diversifying the career opportunities for women and girls.

National Initiatives: Thank you, Rachel, for taking the time to chat with us! First, could you tell us about the programming VWW offers and why employment services in particular are so important?

Rachel Jolly: Definitely. Thanks for having me! First, it is important to discuss our particular focus on women and girls. The fact is that women are more likely to live in poverty than men – particularly women of color, single mothers, and young girls. Obviously reducing poverty among women and girls is an important task in and of itself – but we believe that is also an important economic issue impacting the broader community. As we say on our website, VWW believes in the transformative power of work. Increasing employment opportunities for women not only helps stabilize the lives of individuals and their families – but it also benefits communities by decreasing dependence on government services, increasing tax revenue, and increasing overall economic activity. This is an issue that is both about expanding our workforce and improving the economic situation of women and girls.

At VWW we have over twenty different programs for women and girls addressing a variety of needs. These programs cover three general areas. First, we focus on exposure and education in an effort to expose girls, and in some cases women, to career options that they might not have previously considered and we connect them with role models in those fields.  Also, our programs include lots of occupational training opportunities in numerous disciplines – traditionally in the trades, but we have added lots of other occupations, like law enforcement and IT – basically any field where women represent 25 percent or less of the workforce. Finally, we have services for women in transition. For example, this might take place in the form of classes and services relating to employability for incarcerated women, a mentoring program for women reentering the community post-incarceration and our Transitional Jobs program for women transitioning off of state assistance or out of incarceration into the workforce.

National Initiatives: What are particular types of jobs and occupations you try to place women in and how do these jobs meet the needs of VWW’s participants?

Rachel Jolly: One of our core principles at VWW is our belief that we must always meet individuals where they are. In the past, we were exclusively focused on helping women enter nontraditional occupations – which we definitely still believe to be worthwhile. But as VWW evolved, we realized that these nontraditional fields aren’t always the best option for everyone – and in some cases we realized this focus actually served as yet another barrier for some women already struggling to obtain employment. So now we have a plethora of occupations in which we place women – always trying to meet the individual needs of our participants.

With regard to our transitional jobs programs there are some general areas where TJ graduates tend to find jobs: administrative positions that pay—or have the potential of leading to a livable wage; community-based organization work; manufacturing; and lastly, work in the food service industry. Vermont has a “foodie” culture and because of that there are lots of opportunities in this area. Our social enterprise program – FRESH Food – has been very successful and has a placement rate of about eighty percent.

National Initiatives: Let’s hear about your relationship with us, at NTJN!  Is there any assistance you have found particularly effective or valuable?

Rachel Jolly: Of course! Chris (Warland) and I have had a lot of communication over the past few years! The NTJN conference in particular was very helpful and a great experience for us. Because we are in a small state and we are bit unique in our focus on women and girls, we don’t always have a lot of organizations to compare ourselves to and exchange notes with. Through NTJN we are able to get a picture of what is going on at the national level and where our bar should be. We’ve been able to hear what is working for other providers and best practices that have been effective for them. It is also exciting to be able to share the work that we are doing – particularly as a program that is successfully functioning in a relatively more rural context.

National Initiatives: What would you identify as the key components contributing to this success?

Rachel Jolly: As I mentioned before, meeting people where they are at and being ready to support them for the long-haul is really crucial to our work. Many of our programs are only six or nine weeks – but or support does not end there. We say that we serve women for a year after the program, but the reality is that we believe it is important to serve them for as long as they are willing to be engaged. Many of my colleagues and I have met with participants from three, four, even ten years ago who are searching for a new job experience and want to take it to the next level.

Another thing that is important for us is partnership. We don’t necessarily have the capacity for extensive wrap-around services. So we place an emphasis on developing relationships with other organizations and work a lot with state agencies.

National Initiatives: Finally, what is unique about the environment in Vermont and VWW’s work in a more rural environment?

Rachel Jolly: So much of it comes down to our size! Our largest city is 45,000 people. As I said before, in this smaller environment, partnership is critical to what we do and our size can be an asset to getting things done. In Vermont, because our state is small, we run into our national and state legislators on the street! Though VWW doesn’t do a tremendous amount of advocacy – we have an avenue to communicate a message about the importance of our work at a level that might not be as easy for an organization of our size in a larger state. For example, our executive director, Tiffany Bluemle, recently co-authored an article published on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s website advocating for the importance of investment in women and girls for economic growth.

On the other hand, in an economic environment where public funding is a particular challenge, our size can also be a challenge and we have to do our best with limited resources. But we find ways to make it work and continually do our best to serve women and girls in Vermont and help them achieve economic independence.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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