photos by Olive Wassen

Revitalizing the trades, one woman at a time.

Riana LeJeune-Copeland was only 24 when she was injured and forced to retire from the Lawrence, Kansas police force. She struggled to find a job that made her happy until she started talking with other mothers about Pinterest.

“The consensus was the moms loved Pinterest, but they didn’t have the time or skills to take on some of the projects,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Well I can do that.’”

women in tradeSo LeJeune-Copland began creating custom pieces of furniture and selling them online. Within three months, she had so many orders to necessitate shop space. That’s how Repinned, a custom furniture and redesign service, was born. It sounds easy, but in the five years since, she has worked tirelessly to hone her craft with little or no help from others.

“I had never used a sewing machine,” she says. “I had one in my closet that my mom had given me, so I pulled it out and got on YouTube.”

At this point, she found herself in a quandary: The marketplace needed upholstery services, but she couldn’t find an apprenticeship or mentor in the trade. To develop her own skills, LeJeune-Copeland worked for a woman who made skydiving jumpsuits.

“Because of the push for the four-year degree, the trade schools are closing, the boomers are retiring and the shops are closing,” LeJeune-Copeland says.

“I had never used a sewing machine. I had one in my closet that my mom had given me, so I pulled it out and got on YouTube.”

LeJeune-Copland is not alone — either as an entrepreneur in the trades or as a woman trying to break into them. Advocates, like StuffMomNeverToldYou.com and its rapidly growing podcast Women and the Trades,” work to cast a light on the adversities women in the trades face every day. A variety of nationwide organizations are working to provide these women with support and guidance.

The National Association of Women in Construction helps women network and start careers in construction. Tania Bowman, a business development associate at a construction company and NAWIC member, says women should feel comfortable pursuing opportunities in the construction trades as electricians, mechanics and other blue-collar professions.

“If they like working with their hands, they like being outdoors and they don’t see themselves in an office setting, construction is a great route,” says Bowman. “It’s not just a guys’ world anymore.”

Sometimes, when Bowman visits schools to talk about the construction business, she will find that teachers have only shared blue-collar opportunities with boys. Determined to break down that barrier, the NAWIC partners with and visits organizations that are focused around females, such as the Girl Scouts of America. “If people can’t visualize [women working in the trades] or if you’re not in front of them and telling them, they’re just not going to understand,” she says. “They’re going to think that it’s only men.”

“It’s not just a guys’ world anymore.”

She also battles the perception that trade schools or an apprenticeship, rather than a four-year education, will lead to fewer opportunities. “It’s hard to try and tell parents that a four-year university may not be the best route,” Bowman says. “For 15 years it’s been driven into everyone that if you don’t go to college you’re a failure, and that’s not true.”

Bowman easily makes her point with data: because of the necessity for trade workers, those who are willing to learn could be making well over $80,000 in five years. She recommends that people visit the Build Iowa website, where there is a link to each trade, to learn about the many opportunities students can pursue.

“For 15 years it’s been driven into everyone that if you don’t go to college you’re a failure, and that’s not true.”

women in tradeLeJeune-Copeland is doing her part at the grassroots level. She is working with the Young Women’s Resource Center to educate teens and young mothers about the trades. “[They] think ‘I’m not going to college right now because I’ve chosen to have a child at a young age,’” LeJeune-Copeland says. “Well, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have an amazing career in a skilled trade.” Ever the entrepreneur, she is also working to obtain funding that would allow her to create an apprenticeship program of her own.

Bowman applauds that kind of initiative as exactly what women and the trades need. “Instead of taking the backseat, we need more women to sit in that front seat and know that they’re important.”