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Women in the Trades: Bucking tradition has led to lifelong career for boilermaker

Sudbury's Nicole Lavoie advocating for more women in the skilled trades
Nicole Lavoie is a Sudbury-based boilermaker and weld instructor with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 128.

With every trade in demand for workers, women are finding it easier to find a place to build a lucrative and rewarding career.

Sudbury's Nicole Lavoie, 20-year veteran boilermaker and instructor for the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 128, can attest to not only a satisfying career in the trades, but the need for women to also take the opportunity.

“It’s definitely changed. There’s a big push these days,” said Lavoie. “There are all sorts of opportunities within the trades, and the trades are so diverse that it’s not just one path.”

Lavoie always knew she was not interested in the traditional women’s career offered to her after high school, but wanted to pursue a career as a mechanic. She started out in the automotive trade doing oil changes, tire changes, and waiting to get signed up for an apprenticeship as a mechanic.

She enrolled in a college program, initially to study entrepreneurship, and completed one year. She left to work with a cousin where she discovered her affinity for welding, and switched to a 40-week welding program at Cambrian College.

Nicole Lavoie is a Sudbury-based boilermaker and welding instructor with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 128. | Supplied photo

​Unfortunately, finding work as a female welder, almost 25 years ago, was not easy.

In one situation, she walked into a company to drop off her résumé but the hiring manager dropped it in the wastepaper bin beside him and told her she would be too intimidated by the machinery. It wasn’t the only company who had the same response.

Her break came through a family friend who worked at the local International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Union and encouraged Lavoie to complete their aptitude test.

She didn’t expect to hear from them and decided to take a two-year automotive course at Cambrian College that led her to a placement and potential apprenticeship at a local dealership.

Some time later the Boilermakers' actually did call. The offer was a three-month pre-apprenticeship but with no payment. It was a leap of faith.

They offered to teach her everything about the welding trade. It was a tough choice, especially while making minimum wage and trying to pay off all of her student loans.

“I came in here and pretty well never looked back,” Lavoie recalled.

Being a member of the organization allowed her to be on the list of boilermakers who get called out by local companies to complete jobs, whether it’s for a day, a week, a month or longer.

“You don’t know what the job’s going to be; could be a planned shutdown, could be an emergency shutdown because something went wrong, any number of those situations. Once the job is done, back on the list,” Lavoie explained.

“Boilermaker is a lifestyle, too. You may work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for a few weeks, and then you could potentially have a month off before the next job.”

Boilermaker Nicole Lavoie talks about her experience in the trade in this video from the Ontario Building Construction Tradeswomen (OBCT):

Lavoie had worked for about 18 years in the field and was moving into supervisory roles when the instructor position with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local opened up. Lavoie said that taking the role meant the opportunity to teach and maybe try to change some of the mentality coming out of the shop and into the field.

“It also gives me a little bit of a chance for a different lifestyle, for a change.”

With a steady and consistent job, she could make long-term plans and take weekends off.

As an instructor, she teaches new apprentices and some journeymen who haven’t done certain processes or haven’t practised in a while. She oversees testing or does checkpoints for testing alongside inspectors.

She was recognized in 2022 with the Stellar Award by the Workforce Planning for Sudbury and Manitoulin for her contributions to the Tomorrow’s Trades program that encourages a career in the trades.

Over the past 20 years, Lavoie has not seen very many women in the shop but more recently that is changing.

“Some days, to my surprise, and it still blows my mind, there are more females in the shop than men,” she said.

Lavoie has been involved with the Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen’s (OBCT) Women’s Committee to encourage and support women joining the trades. She was highlighted in their boilermaker video showcasing the different trades to explore.

It is clear she loves her work and is grateful for the equal pay and benefits that are part of the trades. The benefits outweigh the challenges.