Working her way through high school, Kendra Liinamaa was sure she wanted to be a graphic designer.
But after landing a co-op placement with a local sign-making company, the Sudbury resident started having second thoughts.
“I asked a lot of questions, and the more I asked, the less interest I had in pursuing it,” she said during an Oct. 11 presentation at Science North in Sudbury.
Rather than focusing on design, Liinamaa gravitated toward the shop floor, learning how to apply vehicle wraps and taking on other jobs working with her hands. Something about the busy nature of it all clicked, and her interest in trades work was sparked.
“The more time I spent on the shop floor, the more confident and badass I felt,” she said.
Today, Liinamaa is an apprentice millwright with Vale in Sudbury, as well as a trades ambassador for KickAss Careers, a program to raise awareness amongst students about apprenticeships and career pathways in skilled trades and technology.
She appeared as the keynote speaker during a day of activities for girls aged 10 to 13, organized by Skills Ontario, to celebrate the UN’s International Day of the Girl Child. This year’s theme is ‘Our Time Is Now – Our Rights, Our Future.'
Liinamaa noted that, despite her success today, self-doubt nearly derailed her career early on.
As a woman who’s short and petite — she said she’s been described as “100 pounds soaking wet” — she worried employers wouldn’t hire her, thinking her incapable of doing the job.
But in 2019, going into her second year of studies at Cambrian College, she got a big vote of confidence when she was granted the Georges & Gisele Brouillette/City Welding Award, which came with a $500 prize and a summer apprenticeship with City Welding.
Rob Brouillette, owner and president at the fabrication shop, has long been a champion of training new generations of workers. When he heard her story, Liinamaa said, he offered to pay her summer apprenticeship in full, a $2,500 value.
“I was the first woman they ever had on the shop floor, and I had an amazing Red Seal (journeyman) that encouraged me and supported me every single step of the way,” Liinamaa said.
Patient and knowledgeable, her mentor “helped me feel confident in my abilities, and never talked to me like I was dumb,” despite her own insecurities, she said.
Since entering the workforce full time, Liinamaa said, she’s learned that women bring a distinct set of qualities that actually benefits the workplace.
Being small and agile helps her get into confined spaces, and women tend to have better hand dexterity than their male counterparts, she noted. They additionally tend to come up with creative ways to move heavy parts and equipment.
"I also usually am the first on my team to think of a way to do something that won't take as much physical force,” she said.
“I know lots of women have told me they've shown their coworkers a thing or two about using their bodies in a good way and not breaking their backs."
Now three years into her apprenticeship, Liinamaa said it’s been a combination of luck, persistence, and mentorship that has enabled her to develop the confidence to excel at her job.
And she’s pleased to see even small changes in industry — like the arrival of proper fitting workwear — that signal more women are being welcomed into the fold.
It’s been a tough but rewarding journey that she’s excited to continue.
“It takes a great deal of knowledge and confidence to be able to take something apart and put it back together, and know it will work better than it did before,” she said.
“I love knowing I can be the person with real-life experience and passion to back up that statement.”