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Women Leaders in Business: Entrepreneurship a 'calculated risk' for Timmins tradeswoman

Work as an industrial millwright is paying off for JTR Custom Works' Joelle Charbonneau

If you like fixing machines, don’t mind getting a bit dirty, and are eager to learn, Joelle Charbonneau wants you.

The gregarious Timmins entrepreneur leads a hardworking crew of industrial welders and millwrights that travels across the North fixing equipment and machinery for clients in mining, forestry, power generation, agriculture, and other industries.

But good workers are hard to find these days, and so Charbonneau happily grows her own, taking in people who show a proficiency at the job, shepherding them through their education and apprenticeship, and on to a gratifying career with her company, JTR & Custom Works.

“I feel like the business that I own is like a vehicle to improve other people’s lives,” she said.

“Right now, the trades are in a really iffy time, with the lack of labour, and so I have an open mind.

“I’m proud that our organization likes to take people with no experience, just schooling and no experience, or don’t even have an apprenticeship but an interest, and we grab them by the hand and we say, ‘Come with us. This is a safe place to grow,’ and then we help them grow.”

A handful of her current employees started out as general labourers and have now moved up the ranks, writing their exams, completing their apprenticeships, and becoming eligible journeypersons under her guidance.

“That’s what it’s all about — for me, anyway.”

Maybe it’s because Charbonneau followed a similar path that she can so easily see the potential in people.

Though she grew up on a farm and spent her childhood around the trades, she initially had other ideas about her future.

“I was definitely not planning on being in the trades,” she laughed. “I went to university in geographical information systems (GIS), and I was hoping to work for a geology department, or an environmental department, or maybe urban planning.”

She did fulfill that goal — briefly.

After graduation, she landed a coveted gig as a geological technician in Detour Gold’s exploration department where put her skills to work logging drill core.

On a trip home to visit her dad during a string of days off, she saw how quickly his business was growing and intuited that he could use some help keeping his employees safe.

Charbonneau quit her job with Detour and immersed herself in everything related to occupational health and safety, completing coursework with the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association and Workplace Safety North, eventually carving out a specialty in confined space management within her dad’s business.

As JTR’s operations manager and resident safety specialist, Charbonneau has served as a mentor for female welders coming into the shop, and pre-COVID, she regularly visited area high schools to speak to young women about career options in the trades.

Her goal, she said, was to “try to show them that there is room for them. It is a good place to work."

“You don’t need to be extra strong today, with all the mechanical advantage devices,” she said. “You just need to have a passion for it, and you’ll do great.”

She’s now practising what she preached: after returning to college to train as an industrial millwright, Charbonneau is in the process of studying for her exam, so she can earn her Red Seal certification.

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Her contributions over the last decade have garnered JTR a handful of industry accolades.

In 2017, the company received the inaugural Small Business Health and Safety Leadership Award from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), one of only three businesses in the province recognized that year.

Two years later, in 2019, the company was named Company of the Year (16-50 Employees) at the Northern Ontario Business Awards (NOBA is an program of Northern Ontario Business).

And, this past spring, Charbonneau received the Young Leader Award from the Timmins Chamber of Commerce.

This winter, she took on a fresh challenge.

After Charbonneau purchased the company from her dad, Jean’s Technical Resources & Custom Works has become Joelle’s Technical Resources & Custom Works.

Though she worked alongside her dad over the last five years in preparation of taking over, Charbonneau admitted shifting the focus from fieldwork to desk work has been a challenge.

“My paperwork game ain’t very good,” she joked.

“I’m learning as I go, and I’m doing the best I can,” she added. “I have a wonderful team of people that care for the company, that care for me, and we all care for each other, so we’re just going to get through it together.”

Since JTR launched in 2007, the company has grown to 35 full-time employees and is adding more staff all the time, including a number of women who are entering the trades for the first time.

Charbonneau is grateful for her roster of new and regular clients that have learned to trust that her “team with a big heart” can get the job done efficiently, safely, and with a high quality of service, while giving her workers a chance to learn and grow.

So, does she have any words of wisdom for other tradeswomen setting out on the path to entrepreneurship?

“I don’t consider myself wise at all; I’m still very young and just starting out,” she said.

“But I’ve noticed that sometimes you’ve gotta take some calculated risks and just, if it feels good, do it.”