Julie Zulich has long been aware of the need to attract and retain more women in the skilled trades. So, it wasn’t a hard decision last year to help develop a new mentorship program geared toward Northern Ontario tradeswomen.
LeadHER Trades was designed as a year-long initiative in which mentees are paired up with mentors to exchange ideas, learn, and guide one another in their field of choice.
Zulich began calling around to partners in the Sudbury area she had worked with, hopeful of recruiting a dozen women apprentices who could share their expertise at monthly meetings.
But she quickly realized it was a task easier dreamed than done.
“Do you know what a struggle it was to find 12 female apprentices from each trade group — electrical, pipefitter, millwrighting, carpenters, ironworkers, and labourers?” Zulich said.
“I was shocked.”
Zulich isn’t a tradesperson herself. But she regularly hires them in her role as president and partner at TESC Contracting in Sudbury.
In operation since 1976, the company provides integrated construction services to the mining, energy/power generation, and forest products industries.
Though she didn’t take on her current role until 2020, Zulich has been around the company her entire life: her dad, Tom Lachance, was an original founder and is represented by the ‘T’ in the company’s name.
But right from a young age, Zulich said, her father steered her away from the industry.
“Construction was never really talked about,” she said. “My dad was kind of a very quiet guy. I think, even back then, he saw enough to view it as an industry that he didn’t want his daughters to be necessarily involved with.”
Proficient in maths and sciences, Zulich considered a career in medicine. But after a stint studying science at Western University, she switched to a business program, returning home to Sudbury to complete her degree, while simultaneously operating a small Second Cup coffee franchise.
By 2000, Zulich was married with two young children, and her dad was looking to retire. He transferred ownership of the company to Zulich’s then-husband, Dario, and she came on board to help with the business.
Over the years she’s worked in safety, accounting and finance, and operations, and even considered going back to school to learn a trade.
“There was always that little bit of a feeling that, with more of a technical, hands-on background, I would be a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “And then, over time, you learn that you’re running a business, and you’re managing and leading people.
“So high emotional intelligence is very important. You’re building a culture, and you want to attract the right people if you want to be that kind of an organization.”
When, in 2019, TESC found itself in need of a new leader, Zulich emerged as the logical choice. But self-doubt crept in as she debated the merits of taking on such a prominent role.
“I’m a pretty confident person,” she said, “but it’s a big responsibility.”
Settling in over the last two years, Zulich said, she’s learned to trust the skills and expertise of her staff — “I’m surrounded by fantastic people,” she said — and not feel as though she has to micromanage everything.
That strategy seems to have worked well: heading into her third fiscal year at the helm, TESC has had two of its most successful years in the company’s history.
Tackling the issue of getting more women into the trades has been more challenging.
While some trades contracts include allotments for hiring women, many do not, and positions are filled based on the next name on the list, Zulich said.
It’s viewed as an equitable way to portion out the work that’s available, but sometimes that leaves women unable to get the experience they need to boost their skill set.
“Your business has to be profitable, and so you look and you say, ‘I want the best and the most talented person for the job.’ But at the end of the day, in an industry like construction, you don’t have a whole smorgasbord of diversity in who you’re selecting from,” Zulich said.
“So, if we’re going to be purposeful about it… we have to pick that female apprentice and give her the opportunity to get up there, because there are 150 men on the list ahead of her.”
Zulich has become a passionate advocate of bringing more women into the trades and often lends her voice to educational and training initiatives.
She’s worked with Skills Ontario, sponsored Cambrian College’s Jill of All Trades youth event, and chairs the Women in Mechanical Construction Committee of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada.
LeadHER Trades was another step on that course, and despite its uncertain start, the inaugural year of the program was a success.
Wrapping up earlier this fall, the program gave participants shared insight on what their peers experience on the job, from the struggle to find a women’s bathroom on site to the challenges of balancing remote work with motherhood.
Zulich is hopeful initiatives like it will continue to spread awareness about what’s needed to support women going into the trades and lead to broader inclusion in the sector.
“There’s enough opportunity for everybody,” she said. “So let’s just, as companies and people, continue to try and do better things, the right things, and slowly but surely, good things will happen.”