When Althea Burgett first toured Orleans Technical College, she was inspired by the presence of instructor Linda Dunphy, the only woman instructor at the school. Learning a trade was never a possibility that occurred to Burgett until, 12 years into her career as a baker, she set out to make a change in her life.
“It was nice to see another woman here, and she told me she was the teacher of building maintenance, which was ever more awesome,” Burgett said. “She was very encouraging for me to come to the school.”
Burgett said she was expecting her electrical class to be male-dominated, but didn’t expect to be the only woman in the class. She graduated at the top of the class and is currently deciding between two job offers.
“[Before I started] I only knew how to put in batteries or a light bulb,” she said with a laugh.
Burgett is one of 11 female students to graduate from the school’s carpentry, building maintenance and electrical classes, the highest number of female graduates in one term the school has ever seen. For women like Burgett, learning a trade may not even seem like an option, but Burgett made the most of her six months at the school.
“Even though I was the only woman in my class, I was still treated with respect and it wasn’t like I was put on the spot to stand out, I meshed in well,” she said.
Dunphy said that she inspires male and female students and that if her abilities are ever doubted, she quickly proves them wrong. When she sees a prospective student like Burgett, she tries to make them feel welcome.
“[Burgett and I] talked about the trades and how I got in here and how I feel being in a male-dominated field, and I think that put her mind at ease,” she said. “I greet all the women that way and encourage them not to be afraid.”
Dunphy said she likes being a person of support and encouraging anyone to get involved in the trades, including her granddaughter, who helped her work on the deck and build a ramp to the shed.
Getting involved in trades didn’t seem like an option for Laura Cannon, either. She recalled sitting at her former job contemplating if it was worth going inside, saying she was sick of the “same four walls” every day. After a little bit of research and seeing what people can create with carpentry, she gave her work a six-month notice so she could go to Orleans to study the craft.
“It was definitely the best decision I’ve ever made, there’s no turning back,” she said.
The carpentry class helps demolish and create a miniature home right in the school, which Cannon said she got to participate in every aspect of. She also designed and built a bench outside the house that earned praise from her classmates.
“As I was assembling the bench, of course, everyone was busting my chops, because it never looks like a bench when you first start,” she said. “In this field, everyone busts chops.”
Cannon hopes to design and create her own furniture in the future.
“The fact that the trade is male-dominated motivates me because I love going against the crowd and showing a different image,” she said. “I have five nieces, so I want them to look at me and see a female carpenter can make it in the industry.”