In 2019, when The Bucket Shop (TBS) was approached about training Indigenous women to weld, Jamie Pouw was slightly skeptical.
Operational for more than three decades, the Timmins fabrication shop manufactures buckets for heavy-duty industrial equipment, which are shipped to mining operations around the world. But it requires a certain set of specialty skills and experience.
“The projects that we work on are huge pieces of steel for mining equipment — big buckets and big truck boxes — so even for a person that’s recently graduated from college and had been welding, there’s still a pretty big learning curve to get used to the size and the scope of the projects that we deal with,” said Pouw, who’s served as The Bucket Shop’s business optimization lead for the last five years.
“We really need some people that have had welding exposure before they even ‘make sparks.’”
But their suitor — Keepers of the Circle, which provides education and social services for Indigenous communities in northeastern Ontario — has a long, successful track record of collaborating with industry partners on training programs. And The Bucket Shop, like so many in the industry, was having a difficult time finding skilled welders to hire.
So the two started a conversation and a new training program was born.
Keepers of the Circle agreed to vet applicants to ensure they met the requirements for the work.
Eligible women had to be comfortable working in a structured environment where they would be scheduled for shift work under the supervision of a production manager. Many of the company's projects are time-sensitive, which can also add an element of pressure.
Those who applied ranged from young women just starting out to single moms seeking work to support their families to more mature women who were looking to try something new.
“We had women that were ready for some kind of transition in their life, and they were looking for opportunities to learn something, and they were fully committed,” Pouw said. “It was incredible.”
The Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB), the national body that oversees training and certification standards for the profession, provided The Bucket Shop with the same two-year welding program used by Ontario colleges.
Honing in on the practical experience, Pouw developed an eight-week introductory welding program, and tapped a staff member as the instructor. In June of that year, four women — none of whom had welded before — signed up for the inaugural cohort.
“We purposely didn’t set any expectations, because we were new at this,” Pouw said.
The initial goal, he said, was to teach the women to weld, familiarize them with some of the company’s unique projects, and then bring in the CWB to test them for their welding ticket.
“All we promised was, we’ll do our best to get you ready to do the test.”
After eight weeks, all four women passed their CWB test on the first try.
“As our first shot out of the gate, we were ecstatic,” Pouw said.
The company was so pleased with the result, the company committed to an entire year. They held four intakes in total, with four women in each cohort, who trained for eight weeks. By the second intake, they had added a second welding ticket for their students, and again had a 100 per cent success rate.
At the end of the first year, The Bucket Shop hired two of the women, while the others received a letter of recommendation and were referred to other employers in the mining industry.
Pouw said the company was so impressed with the experience, it immediately signed up for a second year.
This time, they expanded the training program to add intermediate and advanced welding techniques to the curriculum, bringing the trainees into the shop environment just as they would an apprentice. They also expanded the cohort, welcoming seven trainees into the program.
Again, their students impressed, all of them earning their welding tickets and five staying on as employees.
Despite its success, the initiative hasn’t been without its growing pains.
Pouw said the entire workforce had to learn how to balance the cultural needs of their trainees with the production needs of the shop.
For example, some of the women are Elders and have standing commitments to their communities at certain times of the year, such as during hunting season, he said. That means they might not be able to work certain shifts and require time off to be at home.
Before the first cohort arrived, all Bucket Shop workers went through an orientation to learn more about Indigenous culture, Canada’s history of colonization, the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and some of the challenges resulting from reconciliation efforts. Many were learning about these issues for the first time, Pouw said.
“It was a pretty harsh reality of Canada’s history of the last 100 years of mistreatment.”
Unfortunately, he said, the education session “went too far,” and two weeks in, the women found no one was speaking with them — staff were afraid of saying or doing anything that would come across as offensive.
So, Pouw went back to the drawing board and rejigged the message: treat the trainees as you would any other coworker, with warmth and respect, and focus on getting to know them as people.
“Once we balanced the message a little bit, it was a wonderfully welcoming environment and they fully integrated with everybody quite comfortably,” Pouw said.
To date, the company has trained 45 Indigenous women as welders, and they’re currently gearing up for their third year.
Some of the women have returned to their home communities, while others have found work elsewhere. At least one is continuing in a welding apprenticeship, working toward earning her Red Seal.
Pouw is proud that the company can offer people training and employment while also addressing the skilled trades gap that’s long plagued the industry, and other industry employers are taking notice.
“We truly felt that we filled a really nice gap in the training pathway that no one else could fill,” he said.
“Our mandate was to help ourselves, but help the skilled trades sector by creating as many credentialed people as we can.
“It helps us, it helps the mines, it helps the welding and millwright trade. So it truly was this legacy program that we were happy to lead.”
Editor's note: Since the time of this interview, the program has been temporarily halted. However, options are being considered for future iterations of the initiative.