When we think of the work force along Maine’s coastline and marinas, it’s usually a male figure that comes to mind: salty lobstermen, guys working the docks and building boats.
“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. I can remember a time when I was an oddity,” says Susan Swanton, executive director of the Maine Marine Trades Association. “That’s not the case today. Women are actually making a conscious choice to come into the industry.”
Swanton, 55, says she has noticed a shift in the last decade.
“They’re on yard crews, they’re carpenters, mechanics, electricians, and they’re also making strides on the management side.”
The Center for Workforce Research and Information shows a 1.5 percent increase in women employed in ship and boat building from 2005-2010, and these figures do not include self-employed individuals.
In just the last five months, two women in the marine trades have graduated from Women, Work and Community’s New Ventures Entrepreneurship Training program in southern Maine, which begs the question: Why? What inspired these women to launch nontraditional businesses?
“I like a good challenge,” grins 31-year-old Laura Rendell, owner of Coastal Marine Care and Upholstery. “You gotta prove yourself.”
Rendell provides a mobile fiberglass repair, marine care and upholstery service in New England and the Caribbean. Based in South Portland, she started her business in 2009. She’s no stranger to being in the minority.
“My whole life I’ve been surrounded by men. I grew up on a street one of the youngest and the only girl.”
She was one of three women on a 23-person wildland firefighter crew in Oregon, and worked on the manufacturing line for The Hinckley Co. in Maine and as a fiberglass technician in Port Harbor.
“I’ve always been working in male-dominated industries,” she says. “I was always the girl in school who could climb to the top of the rope.”
Rendell has learned to expect some gender jabbing in her new business. She once repaired two chips on the deck flooring of a Boston Whaler. Her client told her there were two, but he found a third chip later.
“He said, ‘Maybe if I’d drawn lipstick around it, you would have found it,’” she laughs. “People say funny things.”
Like most entrepreneurs who are used to thinking outside the box, Rendell has learned that being a woman has marketing advantages.
“People don’t need to remember my name,” she says. “I’m known as ‘the girl who does fiberglass.’ It happens a lot.”
Capt. Michele Plourde, owner of She Worthy Charters in South Portland, agrees. “I’m ‘the girl who lives on her boat.’ Most people call me She Worthy. No one calls me Michele.”
Plourde has her masters captain’s license and offers fishing excursions, harbor cruises, and even scattering of ashes at sea on her 37-foot Egg Harbor Sport Fishing Yacht. Plourde is also no stranger to nontraditional occupations. She went to Utah at age 20, working as a lifty at a ski resort as one of four women on a 60-person crew. She later worked in the corporate world for 18 years, much of which was IT work.
“I fished every day … after work, before work, at lunch. I’d roll up my pants and go out in the marsh and fish. I always said I would do this [business] by the time I was 40.”
She turned 40 on April 2, just one day after her business became fully operational.
Plourde says she did have some disappointments and demeaning comments thrown her way last year as she worked to launch her business. She said she’s already finding a shift in attitude from last summer. “Men are now seeking me out to work on my boat. They don’t mind working under a woman captain.”
Swanton says her career in the industry began by accident when she landed a job in the office of a boatyard. “I had an absolute wonderful group of men who worked at the yard at the time and were generous with their knowledge.” However, she admits she was part of a larger organization. When speaking about Rendell and Capt. Plourde, “I don’t doubt they’ve had a hard time breaking in.”
Meanwhile, these women are moving full steam ahead. “I’ve been excited about going through the process of proving myself,” Plourde says. “I’m excited to show in a few years that I’ve made it.”
Gigi Guyton is microenterprise coordinator for Women, Work, and Community covering Cumberland and York counties. Her office is in South Portland, and she can be reached at 799-5025, or by email at email@example.com.