Scarlet Burmeister is both talented and a pragmatist. Her chosen profession as a welder and instructor at Chicago Women in Trades is in many senses a counterculture approach to a career. “Only 3% of the people in the trade segment of manufacturing and construction are women. But it’s a good profession. It’s well-paying. There is ongoing education and benefits. That’s why we work with women to teach them trade skills.”
In particular, Chicago Women In Trades focuses on helping women in need advance their careers. The organization’s website says it best: “Founded by tradeswomen in 1981, Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) works for women’s economic equity by increasing participation in well-paid, skilled jobs traditionally held by men and by eliminating barriers that prohibit women from entering and succeeding in these fields. We provide support, advocacy, and education to tradeswomen; work to increase training for women and girls to enter nontraditional jobs; provide assistance to employers, unions, and other service providers; document workforce trends; and advocate for policies and practices that support women’s access to and retention in skilled training and jobs.”
Scarlet entered the school in 2014 and found herself talented enough as a welder to begin instructing other students. Her previous career trajectory had included maintenance work in food manufacturing, but found her groove when she researched CWIT and decided she liked the hands-on aspects of the work and the idea that welders were in fair demand.
“Most trades have a career track in training, and apprenticeships are typically a five-year program, and you’re paid while you’re learning. That puts you about two elective classes away from an associate’s degree too. You come out with a trade and no debt.”
The advocacy approach at Chicago Women In Trades helps women from all backgrounds determine how to succeed. “There is more acceptance in manufacturing than in construction,” Burmeister admits.
The organization also helps women organize their lives around a career path that is practical. “We try to work within the limits of people’s lives,” she says. “When you have an unemployed mother training 4-5 days a week, there are obstacles that need to be overcome.” Yet many do. Then it’s a task of helping those same women land jobs that in some cases are considered the sole province of men.
But skilled labor is appreciated in the manufacturing and construction world. Chicago Women In Trades uniquely bridges the gap of conservative and liberal political interests by supplying opportunities to otherwise disadvantaged women.
Coming to work every day is therefore a great motivator for Scarlet Burmeister. But she is unconventional even in that endeavor. “I ride my bike pretty much all year round,” she notes. “And even though I live in a straight shot up Western Avenue from Women in Trades, I don’t take that street to get here. That would be insane.”
Her experience in dealing with Chicago drivers has taught here a few things about bicycle commuting. “At best they’re often negligent and at worst, they’re aggressive,” she says.
“I think it’s a lack of education about what the rights of bicyclists really are. People drive by yelling at me to get off the road and onto the sidewalk. But they don’t know that’s actually illegal.” She shakes her head at that thought.
She takes side streets for the most part, and rides in all but the worst weather. “Chicago streets are bad enough without slick stuff on the surface,” she laughs. “So if there’s snow on the ground I usually take the bus.”
It is so refreshing to meet a person whose unconventionalities represent the better part of human nature. Scarlet Burmeister is making things work on a number of fronts.