In her early 20s, Nicole Martini was working in retail in Kelowna, B.C., and didn’t know what kind of career she wanted. She knew it wasn’t retail and she didn’t like the idea of going back to a typical school environment — sitting in class all day and reading books instead of doing something concrete.
“My mom had told me about trades. All my family was in trades,” she said.
But with so many different trades to choose from, and no background in any of them, Martini didn’t know where to start.
Then she found Okanagan College’s Gateway to the Building Trades for Women program. The 10-week exploratory program gives women hands-on experience in a variety of trades, including carpentry, joinery, electrical, plumbing and automotive.
“They really get to learn a little bit about all of these different trades,” said Nancy Darling, program administrator for trades and apprenticeship at Okanagan College in Kelowna.
Martini started the program on Aug. 31, 2009, and completed it in December of the same year. From there, she took the college’s plumbing foundations course at the Penticton, B.C., campus, which she completed in July 2010.
“It helps you so much to get going,” said Martini of the Gateway and foundations courses. “They help you to figure out what you want to do. It’s just a great program.”
While Martini hasn’t yet found a plumbing job, the programs did more than teach her about the different trades and prepare her for an apprenticeship — they taught her a lot about herself.
“You learn you’re a little stronger than you think you are. You can deal with any problems that come,” she said.
The programs are part of a pilot project that began in December 2008 and so far 218 women have completed both programs, said Darling.
“What’s really rewarding for us is to see them gain confidence as they start to gain some skills and start to think of themselves moving into a career that’s really going to help themselves and their families,” she said.
The programs are geared to unemployed and underemployed women and are funded through a labour market agreement between the British Columbia government and the federal government and delivered through the Industry Training Authority of B.C.
“All of our trades foundations programs give them the skills they need to be employable right away. We worked really closely with industry so our training is up to par and it’s what employers are expecting so they’re really ready to hit the ground running once they’ve finished their foundations training,” said Darling.
That could mean a job or an apprenticeship as they work towards attaining their Red Seal certification.
The college also refers women to the British Columbia Construction Association for help finding jobs in the industry.
Of the four women referred to the association’s Kelowna branch, none have been matched with an employer yet, said Glenn Olien, regional manager for the association’s Skilled Trades Employment Program. But he expects that to change soon.
“The economy is a little slower in British Columbia within the construction industry,” he said. “It’s difficult for everybody right now to get some entry-level trades positions. But it should be picking up as soon as the economy picks up again.”
There should be a lot of opportunities for women in the construction trades in the next few years. About 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the construction workforce — about 200,000 workers — will be retiring over the next 10 years, according to forecasts from the Construction Sector Council in Ottawa.
“We need to start thinking about refreshing that workforce,” said Rosemary Sparks, senior director of planning and development at the Construction Sector Council.
With women making up just four per cent of construction tradespeople, according to the 2006 census, women represent an untapped source of labour for the industry, said Sparks.
Respectful workplaces, family-friendly policies help attract women
But the industry needs to do more to promote trades and encourage women to consider construction trades as a career, she said.
The work environment needs to be welcoming and respectful and there needs to be mentoring opportunities as about 80 per cent of training takes place on the job, she said.
Also, employers need to consider family-friendly policies because construction hours are often at odds with the availability of child care, said Sparks.
If the B.C. industry, in particular, doesn’t do what it can to get more people interested in trades, it will see the same problems it experienced in 2008 and 2009, said Olien.
“There was such a skill shortage that some projects were put on hold and not completed,” he said.
Besides the fact there will be a lot of jobs available to people with the right training, construction trades jobs also pay well and there’s lots of room for advancement, said Sparks.
“The sky’s the limit,” she said.
In Prince Edward Island, a hairdresser (a female-dominated trade) earns about $25,000 a year while an electrician (a male-dominated trade) earns about $50,000 a year, said Sarah Roach Lewis, the Trade HERizons project manager in Charlottetown.
“Traditionally, male-dominated workplaces, they pay more than traditionally female-dominated workplaces,” said Roach Lewis.
Trade HERizons is a 14-week career exploration pilot program, delivered by Charlottetown’s Holland College and the Women’s Network, for women interested in careers in trades or technology. The program, which started in February, also offers a college preparation component after the 14 weeks of career exploration.
The 12 women who took part in the program received hands-on experience with trades such as automotive, carpentry, plumbing and ventilation, as well as technology careers such as engineering, bioscience and aircraft maintenance.
Like Okanagan College’s Gateway program, Trade HERizons is designed for women with low income or who may have been out of the workforce for a while, said Roach Lewis.
“We view this as an opportunity for women to move from poverty to a livelihood,” she said.
Trade HERizons also works with participants to help them apply for college programs in their area of interest. Six women from the February intake started a college program in September, while a couple of others had to defer their entry due to personal reasons and some, such as one woman interested in bioscience, had to take upgrading courses before entering full-time studies in their chosen field.
Women bring unique skills
Some employers have told Darling they would prefer to hire a woman for particular jobs. For example, a heavy equipment operator told her a truck driven by a woman requires about 30 per cent less maintenance because women tend to drive more carefully than men.
“That boils down to probably millions of dollars (saved),” said Darling.
Also, the owner of a plumbing company said vulnerable clients, such as the elderly or women living on their own, are more amenable to having a female plumber come into their homes, she said.
And in some instances, a woman’s smaller hands can be an advantage for plumbing jobs in tight spaces, said Roach Lewis.
“Having a smaller stature and smaller hands can actually work in your favour,” she said.
And with advances in technology and increased focus on health and safety, trades jobs don’t require as much brute strength as they used to, she said.
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