Julie Kuklinski could have stayed where she was, in her comfortable job in the familiar Midwest.
But the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native, wasn’t interested in making pretty things for a prominent high-end carpentry company in Chicago. When she quit that position and applied to be the director of the newly launched Women in Construction job-training program in Biloxi, Mississippi, she knew she’d found her calling.
“It felt like this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Julie. “If I was taking the time to build something, what was the reason for me doing it? I wanted to have a purpose and contribute.”
Ten years later, under her leadership, WIC has graduated over 30 classes, training more than 400 women in skills to put them on a path to self-sufficiency. The program, part of the nonprofit Moore Community House, equips them to pursue careers in construction and advanced manufacturing and has a 70 percent graduate placement rate.
“I always saw myself as a leader,” says Julie, “and doing something unique, something different fit me.”
Building her future
She first made her way to Biloxi as an AmeriCorps disaster relief volunteer to help rebuild the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There, she dove into an opening doing demolition work.
“I was pretty comfortable doing things I’d never tried before,” says Julie. “I just decided ‘I’m going to do this.’”
It wasn’t long before she started organizing other women volunteers into all-female demo crews.
“When I looked around, I saw all these women who were feeling timid, working at the sidelines of the men. Often times, they were cleaning up,” she says. “I had to do something to change that.”
The experience of working alongside these women to get residents back into their homes would stay with her long after she left Biloxi.
“As a crew of women, we learned a lot about ourselves, about how to lead, how to stand up, how to address things that aren’t fair but what was also great is that we had a really good time celebrating each other and what we would accomplish,” says Julie.
A return to her roots
When she had the chance to return to the Gulf Coast as the director of WIC in 2008, it felt like coming home.
She’d always been, as she puts it, “an artist and a maker,” and her grandfather and two uncles were contractors.
As a girl, she’d built treehouses in the woods behind her house. And she still remembers how enthralled she was the first time she had to use a band saw and table saw for a sixth-grade shop project.
“I just remember really loving the way you cut the wood and how it smelled and what it felt like to cut the wood. I loved all my art classes but I really enjoyed using wood and metal,” says Julie.
In seventh grade, her shop teacher made her shop foreman.
“He was a male teacher,” says Julie. “I never recognized that as something that may have persuaded me or influenced me but I really think it did.”
The tools for change
She was also drawn to social justice, a passion she’s been able to commit to through her leadership with WIC.
The program not only trains future employees and employers. It cultivates a powerful advocacy in an industry where less than 3 percent of workers are women.
“We’re demanding more than what we’re getting and going out of our comfort zone to get it in these nontraditional occupations,” says Julie. “Showing up as a woman on a job site, you’re an advocate just to be there with the tools in your hand.
“One woman out there can make a difference. Then you have two women, three women, 15, and that can really change the perception on these job sites over time.”
Trainees still confront stereotypes about their strength and ability but never see that as a barrier.
“There’s a lot of different ways to do jobs and a lot of different attributes that women bring,” says Julie. “Women are really great at finish work. But a lot of women prefer bulkier, heavier work; a lot are rough framers. Women can choose what route they want to go.”
Support that empowers
With Mississippi repeatedly ranked among the worst states for women to live in terms of poverty and unemployment, WIC is enabling graduates to as much as triple their wages. The program recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor that will allow it to expand its training and support services, especially access to childcare — a key factor in getting women into the workforce.
But financial empowerment is not the only goal.
“A lot of women come in unsure of going into this industry; they’re nervous and reluctant,” says Julie. “When women leave here, there’s a real mental shift that happens. They leave with their heads up and confidence.
“A lot of women are able to get out of abusive relationships, they’re able to secure housing, to secure childcare. At the end of the day, any steps a woman takes to be happy and healthy and raise her family is what we want to see.”
Some of her most rewarding moments are when students return to announce they’ve just gotten a job, car or apartment. She is also gratified when graduates stop back, looking for support.
“That shows me that this is their home here,” says Julie. “We’re all doing this together. That’s what makes it so impactful.”