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Trades offer women independence, stability, financial security, says construction group

Northeastern Ontario Construction Association bursaries breaking down training barriers
From left are Mark Kivinen, executive director of the Northeastern Ontario Construction Association (NOCA); Trina Hayden, vice-president of the NOCA board of directors; Emma O’Brien, scholarship winner; Emily Levesque, scholarship winner; Joan Strawn, chair of the NOCA Women in Construction Committee; Jaiden Tunney, sales and marketing specialist with NOCA; and Emélie-Jeanne Labelle, sales representative with Levert.

Emily Levesque knew early on that office work wasn’t for her.

In her high school auto mechanics class, the Sudbury student was drawn to the hands-on nature of the work and, soon after, landed a co-operative learning placement with a local mechanics shop where she’s been working ever since.

“I like not having to sit behind a computer all day,” Levesque said. “You’re up; you’re moving; you’re active.

“And it’s always nice when you get something and you fix it on the first try and it works, and you get to see it running and just performing properly after you worked on it.”

Now the 18-year-old is stepping it up a notch.

Levesque has set her sights on working on the big rigs, and has recently completed the first semester of the two-year heavy equipment mechanic course at Cambrian College where she’s learning to service massive machinery of the kind used in construction, mining, and other heavy industry.

It’s a big commitment, but she’s getting help along the way from the Women in Construction Committee of the Northeastern Ontario Construction Association (NOCA), which has awarded her a $2,000 scholarship toward her studies.

“It was really cool,” said Levesque of receiving the phone call while in class one day. “The money always helps out; $2,000 is a lot, especially for tuition and tools.”

Levesque is one of two winners to receive a scholarship in 2023, the second year the committee has handed out the bursaries.

NOCA’s Women in Construction Committee formed in 2022 to support, educate and mentor women in the construction industry and trades.

The board’s chair, Joan Strawn, said the all-female, all-volunteer committee is passionate about supporting women in construction, and lessening the financial burden associated with training is a tangible way to do that.

“We recognize what the trades have to offer women in terms of independence, stability, and financial security, because these are the good-paying jobs now,” Strawn said.

“And so for a woman to have a career in the trades, it means that she’s going to have financial independence, and be secure in her future, and support her family, and of course that means healthy communities as well.”

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Fundraising for the bursaries takes place during membership activities organized throughout the year, she said, and for the second year in a row, they were so successful, the committee was able to award scholarships to two deserving winners.

To be eligible, applicants must be a resident of northeastern Ontario and must be attending a postsecondary course related to the construction trades.

Applicants are also asked to answer three simple questions: how would the bursary support your path through the skilled trades, what does a career in the skilled trades mean to you, and what are your future career plans?

In 2023, the committee received 29 applications, 21 of which met the eligibility criteria, including nine from Sudbury, six from North Bay, one from Timmins, two from Cobalt, and three from Sault Ste. Marie.

Strawn said she also heard from a representative of the construction association in Windsor looking to replicate the NOCA bursary program in that city.

Applications from Levesque and the second winner, Emma O’Brien, easily stood out from the rest, she said.

“We picked the right winners this year for sure, because they both had a very strong passion for the trades,” Strawn said.

The committee was especially impressed that, in their submissions, Levesque and O’Brien spoke about their desire to help mentor other women coming into the trades, and the importance of representation in the industry to encourage other women to seek careers in the trades.

Strawn is optimistic that both will have long, successful careers in their chosen fields.

“They were both really impressive young ladies,” Strawn said. “It was fun meeting them.” 

Planning for fundraising for the 2024 bursaries has already begun, with an event scheduled for April 18 in Sudbury focused on personal protective equipment (PPE) for women.

Featuring a guest speaker, live demonstrations, and other learning opportunities, the one-day event is designed to show what’s currently on the market for women.

Strawn said the event was inspired by changes to provincial legislation announced last March that now require PPE and clothing be properly fitted to women and workers with diverse body types.

Though it’s disappointing it took so long for this type of workplace equality to become a requirement, Strawn said, it helps level the playing field for women entering the construction trades.

“People don’t realize how isolating it can feel when you go to the workplace and not only the equipment isn’t designed for you to use, or in a way that you can use it, but also you don’t have access to the same thing that everyone else does,” Strawn said.

“With the recent legislation updates, this is going to create a more inclusive work environment as well as create a safer work environment for women.”

In her mechanics course, Levesque is already blazing a trail of her own, being the only woman in her year at Cambrian, and the first person in her family to enter the skilled trades.

Though she admits it’s a bit strange to be entering the program as a “new” student when she’s already worked in a shop for a few years, she’s enjoying the program so far.

Once she earns her Red Seal, she’s hopeful of advancing through her career to become a foreman or supervisor one day.

“It’s definitely a good time to get in (to the trades),” Levesque said. “All the older guys are just about to retire, so they desperately need people coming in to fix it. And mining’s so big in Sudbury, and if it’s big here, it’s big everywhere else.”