Women in trades: A real-world option

This is an updated version of a course assignment done when completing Simon Fraser University New Media Journalism certificate program in December 2013.

Creativity sparked by choice of trades career

By Faye Bayko

Devi Hite, 23, had never considered a career in the trades.

“I went to a very academic high school.  They didn’t really foster the creative or physical side,” Hite explained during a December (2013) phone interview.  That academic focus was mirrored at home with a post-secondary education plan with an end goal of a master’s degree.

But then she found herself in an unplanned gap year, working for a retail chain, and bored.

One day she picked up a brochure for the Roundhouse Community Centre and found within its listings a class for woodworking.  “I thought it sounded kind of fun,” she said.

During that one-day-a-week class students were taught the basics of woodworking while building a small bench.  “The instructor held our hand the whole time and he actually didn’t let us cut on the table saw,” Hite laughed.

She enjoyed the class so much she thought it might be something she could do as a career.  After doing some research she found, then signed up for, a joinery and cabinetmaking foundations course offered through the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).  She was one of only four women in a class of 16 students.

This was the beginning of her four-year apprenticeship towards Red Seal certification.

The change in direction caused a few long pauses in conversation when she called her academic-focused parents, especially when she asked for a power drill for Christmas.  But, they quickly accepted her choice and she is presently in her second apprenticeship year, putting in the required on-the-job hours at a local woodworking business.

Working in a profession still dominated by males has its challenges, she said.  “I love this shop.  The men I work with are just that, men.  And, they’re often very delighted when I can prove all of their misconceptions wrong.”

Her present place of employment has shown her how confronting and overcoming those misconceptions can lead to some surprising friendships.  “I have an old Polish woodworker who’s one of my favourite men to work with in the shop.  On my very first day starting there, he took one look at me and he said in his Polish accent, ‘But, you are woman’,” she laughed.

When asked what advice she would give young women considering a career in the trades, Hite directs her advice to the instructors instead.  “They shouldn’t sugar-coat it for them.  The trades are definitely still very much a man’s world.”  And, that world is tough, she said, and can prove startling for women no longer used to experiencing sexism on a day-to-day basis.  “When you go on a job site it’s very in-your-face.  They’re not going to be polite.  They’re not going to hold their tongues.  They’re going to throw it at you and they’re going to see how you react.”

This approach is just part of the culture, she said.  “I’ve noticed that they’re tough on me but they’re also tough on each other.”

Toughening up and growing a thick skin is a necessary part of making it on the job, she said.  “It feels like you shouldn’t have to do it but if this is what you love to do and want to do, you have to toughen up and stick it out until they can see that you are actually worth your salt.”

Once you have proven yourself, she said, a whole new world opens up.  “Once they see that you know what you’re doing and can do it with the best of them, it’s almost like you’re one of the gang.  And, that is a really unique feeling,” Hite stressed.  “Breaking into the boy’s club is hard, but being in it is awesome.”

The trades numbers

Statistics Canada’s 2009 Labour Force Survey showed two per cent of women in the workforce, aged 25 to 64, were in an occupational field involving the trades, transport, or equipment operation; 27 per cent of the male workforce were in those same careers.

For processing, manufacturing and utilities careers the numbers were closer: three per cent were female, seven per cent men.

For those looking for further information about careers in the trades, the Careers in Trades website has been revamped to provide up-to-date information.

Trade introduction

A group of 21 young women were given the opportunity to try their hand at three trade occupations November 28 (2013) during a day-long workshop held at John Oliver Secondary School.

These Grade 10 students, representing eight Vancouver high schools, were taught how to change a tire; perform an oil change; nail a floor and wall joists together; cut, bend, and weld metal into a take-away picture frame; and generally what a job in the trades would be like.

“We have to get past stereotypes,” said Peter Orlandi, apprenticeship teacher with the Vancouver School Board, when discussing the common assumption that a career in the trades is of interest only to male students.  “If you have a passion, like working with your hands, or you like numbers, or cars, there are a lot of different trades out there and they require all different types of skills, including artistic. There’s a lot of neat stuff out there worth trying.”

Students were provided with information about apprenticeship and industry standards, such as the Red Seal, and encouraged to ask questions of the instructors.

This was the fifth workshop hosted by the Vancouver School Board and funded through the Industry Training Authority (ITA), and the second targeting female students.  There were two previous workshops open to the general student population and one open to aboriginal students.  All workshops occurred this year but covered two school years: three in the spring, two in the fall.

The next step for students would be to enroll in one of the trades-related educational streams (ACE-IT program), available to them in their Grade 11 or 12 year.  “They can get credit towards high school graduation as well as their first-year apprentice theory training,” said Orlandi.  “It gives them a head start because they also get credits for high school and they can apply for jobs.”

The first deadline for applications into the dual-credit programs, November 30, has passed with no applications being received from those students who took the spring workshops.  The next deadline is March 30, 2014.  The number of applications received from students who took the trade-sampler workshops is one way in which school officials hope to measure the effectiveness of the workshops in drawing students into the trades.  There are two more workshops planned for 2014, Karen Larsen, career education coordinator with Vancouver school board, stated in an email response, but logistical difficulties may place them on hold.

Orlandi said his goal is to present students with options.  “A lot of students in high school, you ask them what they can do after high school and you get the answer, well, I can go to college or university.  That’s a good option, there’s nothing wrong with that option, but there’re others, such as a skilled trade, and technical careers.”

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About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Vancouver, BC.