Cindi Kern paves the way for women in non-traditional jobs
Growing up as a self-described "Navy brat," Cindi Kern traveled all across the U.S. "I attended 9th grade and part of 10th grade in Sanford, Florida; the second half of 10th grade in Deptford, New Jersey; 11th grade in Alexandria, Virginia and 12th grade in Chula Vista, California," she says with a laugh. Even with a three-year stint in the Army under her belt, Kern would have been hard-pressed to imagine that she would later spend 17 years running heavy equipment - bulldozers, loaders and paving equipment - as a member of Local 825 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Kern had a couple of strikes against her when she started the Operating Engineers' apprentice program in 1983. While she entered the program at the urging of Chuck, then a friend and now her life partner, "I was considerably older than the other trainees, besides being the only woman in my class," she notes. Nonetheless, her perseverance paid off, as did Chuck's encouragement. Confides Kern, "I owe my success to two guys - Chuck, because he believed in me and offered me so much support, and one guy who said, 'You'll never make it." I thank that guy, because I never run away from a challenge!"
Neither did Kern run away from what she saw as her responsibility to other women who needed a mentor. In 1986, a female electrician gave Kern a copy of a newsletter from TOP/WIN - Tradeswomen of Purpose/Women in Non-Traditional Work. "It offered encouragement to other women struggling in predominately male trades," she recalls. Kern immediately called the organization, and began giving talks at trade schools, high schools, Girl Scout troops and displaced homemakers' organizations. "I wanted to do everything to help women see that there was a whole world of opportunity out there," says Kern. "When I started in the trades, I had no females to look at and say, 'Yes, I can.'"
Today, Kern is on the executive board of the Philadelphia-based organization, which has undergone a transformation from support group to award-winning training program. In serving low-income women looking for jobs in construction and other non-traditional, blue-collar jobs, Kern says, "In ten years, we have taken over 400 Philly women off welfare, and they're starting at salaries averaging $13 an hour with full family benefits."
The training program, which lasts nine months, offers more than carpentry, plumbing, electrical and forklift operation classes. By addressing more basic issues, such as remedial math and literacy, TOP/WIN gives women the tools they need to succeed both on the job and in their lives. Physical conditioning classes help trainees prepare for the physical nature of their work, while "Survival Skills" courses - assertiveness training, communication skills and discussions of the realities of working in a male-dominated environment - give students the psychological tools they need to deal with the obstacles they will face on the job.
"I believe in the organization 100%," Kern says with conviction. "What TOP/WIN is doing is important for not just the women in the training school, but also for the women who drive by and see a woman performing a non-traditional job. They might say to themselves, 'if she can do that, so can I.'"
For Kern, who has one adult daughter and four grown stepchildren, her motivation for volunteering can be glimpsed as she recalls a time when she asked a potential trainee why she was motivated to get off welfare. "She told me she wanted to save her children from dying," Kern remembers. "She said there were so many shootings of children near her that she had to get a job and move her kids out of the neighborhood."
That woman's experience triggered memories for Kern, a former welfare recipient herself. "There was a time when I lived in a house with no heat - ice on the inside of the window, my daughter in bed with me, a kerosene heater turned on.... Whenever the oil heater would come on, I would jump out of bed and hit the thermostat because I did not have enough fuel to last until my next paycheck." Kern continues passionately, "I now earn $28 an hour before benefits, I own two homes and my daughter graduated from Seton Hall University - all because I went to work in a nontraditional occupation for women. These are jobs that matter, not jobs that pay minimum wage with no benefits. These jobs will change lives."
When she's not working on construction jobs in South Jersey, giving lectures for TOP/WIN or acting as a mentor to a woman getting her start in the building trades, Kern and her daughter, Dawn, are busy making plans to raise money for Joints in Motion, a program of the Arthritis Foundation, via a marathon in Dublin, Ireland. In addition, she and Chuck, who is retired from the building trades, enjoy camping and going on cruises. They are also members of the South Jersey Outdoor Club and enjoy hiking and going on weekend trips with the club.
But her heart remains with the families she helps through her work with TOP/WIN. "I am determined to help every woman who wants to help herself, because by lifting women up, we are then lifting children up and out of poverty."