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Trades ticket ‘the biggest asset’ for women considering skilled labour careers

Upcoming Jill of All Trades event aims to inspire young women to take up trades work

Patricia Tousignant readily admits she gets bored easily.

She was training for a career in policing when she decided it wasn’t quite the work she wanted. Instead, she shifted gears toward personal support work, but it still didn’t feel like the right fit.

Struggling to find her place in the labour force, it was her husband who suggested a career in the skilled trades.

“It was something I never thought I’d go into. No one in my family worked in the trades,” Tousignant said.

“I looked at millwrighting and it was everything I wanted in a job. Millwrighting offers just a great opportunity to do different things, from welding to rigging to reading blueprints, which I really enjoyed.”

Last year, Tousignant enrolled in the industrial millwright technician program at Cambrian College in Sudbury, earning the first ever Women in Skilled Trades Bursary from TESC Contracting.

She graduated from the program this past spring with a 4.0 grade point average and landed a position as a junior machinist with Heath and Sherwood where she spent six months.

This October, Tousignant started a new position as an apprentice millwright with WB Melback, a project management and general contracting firm based in Haileybury.

Finally, something had clicked for the plucky young mom.

“Now, I get to make a good salary so I can support my family much better than I was, and I’m hoping that I can continue to inspire women,” said Tousignant, speaking from a job in Alberta where she had just got off the night shift.

“I really believe that women can make a difference in the industry.”

Tousignant was one of several women participating in a discussion panel on Women in the Trades, hosted by Cambrian College on Oct. 19.

The session was a lead-up to Cambrian’s upcoming Jill of All Trades event, a virtual career fair aimed at inspiring girls in Grades 7-12 to consider careers in the trades. Scheduled for Oct. 28, registration for the event is already full.

New tradespeople are needed now more than ever.

According to a report released by the Royal Bank of Canada in September, upwards of 700,000 Canadian tradespeople will be retiring by 2028.

Attracting more women to the sector provides an opportunity to help address the shortage.

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When Cheryl Carbis began her career in 1983 as a determined 18-year-old fresh out of high school, “women really were not a part of being allowed in the trades,” she said.

Arriving at the local office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to apply for an apprenticeship, the entire joint apprenticeship council rejected her application, Carbis said, even though she had scored high marks on technical proficiency and mechanical aptitude tests, and won multiple electrical awards from her high school.

Luckily, she found an ally in Martin McBride, the Local’s director at the time, who removed gender references from all the applications and instructed the council to re-evaluate the submissions based on merit alone.

Carbis’ application was the sole submission to be unanimously accepted by the council.

That was all the help she needed to start her on the journey to a long and rewarding career in the trades.

Still, Carbis said, she’s had to prove herself over the years, demonstrating her skill and often performing tasks that her male colleagues couldn’t, like fitting into small spaces. Eventually, she earned their respect.

“We really need to look at the advantages of all people having different, unique abilities, and how we can use everybody to their best abilities to get the job done,” she said.

A journeyman electrician with construction maintenance and industrial licences, Carbis has now spent 38 years in the sector, and she was the first female electrical inspector for the Electrical Safety Authority.

She considers work in the trades “far superior” to other types of careers because of the vast array of opportunities workers can explore.

Having a stable and reliable income enabled her to buy a home and provide for her four sons as a single mom, she noted.

And, in addition to her work as an electrician and inspector, Carbis has taught both trades school and women in the trades programs.

“You change the dynamics of your job, but you will always have that ticket,” said Carbis, the 2014 recipient of the YWCA Toronto's Woman of Distinction Award.

“That licence of being a tradesperson will be with you forever and is the biggest asset you can have on a résumé, because no matter what field you want to change to, you can always have that as an asset, whether that be a manager or any type of position.”

Women can often be deterred from working in the trades because there’s a perception that they must be brawny and physically imposing.

But that’s a misconception, said Stella Holloway, vice-president of Northern operations for MacLean Engineering, a company that manufactures heavy duty equipment for underground mining.

“While we know there’s a physical component to most trades, brute strength is not the only requirement,” Holloway said. “Technology’s changed how we get work done now.”

Increasingly, work in the skilled trades requires employees to use software, mechanical equipment, and state-of-the-art technology, all designed to make the job easier, safer and more efficient.

These days, computer literacy and a high aptitude for troubleshooting are high on the list of important worker skills, said Holloway, a former director for the Northern Ontario chapter of Women in Mining.

“Tradespeople need to be adaptable, and they need to be technically inclined, and they need to be better equipped to use computers as a whole,” she said.

But there are things companies can do to reduce barriers for women in the industry.

Providing personal protective equipment specifically for women is one, as is creating policies of inclusion and acceptance at the worksite.

There also needs to be more flexibility in the types of training provided, said Holloway.

Most companies already employ on-the-job training, peer-to-peer mentorship, and coaching. But they’re increasingly integrating technology – such as simulators or virtual reality – which Holloway said provides more flexibility for recruits.

MacLean Engineering is currently developing a blended learning program she believes could play a role in attracting more women to the trades.

“If women feel properly trained, this is going to help them perform more competently, it’s going to help to build their confidence, and to take on more challenges within their career,” Holloway said.

“And the reality is that change is going to accelerate more women coming in, like a rippling effect.”