The future of our province relies heavily on more women entering the skilled trades industry.
If someone asked you to envision a “typical” skilled tradesperson, there is a very good chance – statistically, anyway – that your first thought would be of a man wearing a tool belt, hard hat and steel-toed boots. If so, there is data to back this up.
Statistics Canada studies show that 88 per cent of the construction industry workforce in Canada is men. Of the 12 per cent who are female, only a small portion are actually in the skilled trades category.
Currently, women make up only four per cent of the skilled trades workforce*. That’s only four women out of every 100 skilled tradespeople encountered on the job site.
Thankfully, this is changing. More and more women across the country are picking up hammers and framing nailers to make careers in construction for themselves. As local testament to this, NSCC reports the percentage of women enrolled in skilled trades programs increased from nine per cent in 2011 to 12 per cent in 2016.
We are fortunate to share the thoughts and stories of some of these trailblazers – women who have broken the “cement ceiling” and who now want to help other women reach their potential in skilled trades.
Kate Campbell has been working in home construction and renovation for more than 10 years. You may recognize her from various HGTV Canada shows such as Custom Built, Holmes on Homes, Decked Out and most recently Home to Win, among others.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do out of high school,” says Campbell. “I was one of those students that felt pressured to go to university but didn’t know what to take.”
Campbell knew she wanted to work with her hands rather than sit behind a desk, but it wasn’t until her mother clipped out an ad in the local newspaper that she started to figure out what that career would look like. The ad was for a Women in Skilled Trades (WIST) course offered out of The Centre for Skills Development and Training in Burlington, Ont. Campbell enrolled in the course and it changed her life.
“It was love on the first day when I picked up the power tools,” says Campbell. “I had never really considered the trades before that. It kind of blew my mind at the time because it was always ‘you are going to university if you are going to be successful,’ but as soon as I took this course I knew I had found a career path that I was really passionate about.”
For Campbell, that passion led to success. After the WIST course, she completed 400 hours of training with Mike Holmes and today runs her own renovation company, KateBuilds Inc., specializing in small renovations and custom carpentry. On top of that, she still finds time to continue her hosting appearances on HGTV.
Closer to home, yet with a similar beginning, Ronda Frigault also found herself in grade 12 and questioned if university was the route she wanted to take. “Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, your only options as a girl were to become a nurse or a teacher. I didn’t think I wanted to do either of these, so I applied to community college because it was inexpensive,” says Frigault. “But the only thing available was plumbing and I thought, ‘I can’t be a plumber. I own like 124 pairs of shoes!’ But I ended up taking the plumbing course and I loved it.”
After college Frigault worked in the plumbing industry for 14 years and has been teaching the trade at NSCC for the past five years. Regardless of the number of shoes Frigault owns, she was the second woman in Nova Scotia to complete a Red Seal Certification in plumbing.
Stories from women like Campbell and Frigault are slowly helping to break the “skilled tradesperson” stereotypes.
Skilled Trades workforce shortages
Campbell and Frigault both experienced a decades-long trend in Canada of encouraging young people to choose university over college. The strong push away from college education has led to an imbalance in our labour force. This is referred to as “skills mismatch,” where the skill sets of the labour force do not match the skill sets of in-demand jobs. As a result, there is the potential for a significant shortfall in the skilled trades labour force anticipated for 2020.
In addition, Statistics Canada reported in 2015 that, for the first time, there were more people over the age of 65 than there are under 15. Nova Scotia has one of the oldest populations in the country and as a result we will feel the potential labour shortfall keenly as thousands of baby boomers still working in the skilled trades are set to retire over the coming years. According to Build Force Canada (an industry-led organization that provides labour construction market information), 8,200 construction workers in Nova Scotia are expected to retire over the next decade. To offset this, only 5,800 newly trained workers are expected to enter the workforce. According to Build Forces’ 2017-2026 outlook report, this shift in workforce demographics creates a potential for “a significant skill vacuum that requires proactive planning.”
This results in an increase of jobs opening up for the younger generations in the near future, which is great. However, when we combine an aging demographic with the trend of pushing young people away from learning skilled trades, we end up with a serious void in qualified workers. The questions is, where is the needed skilled labour going to come from? One answer is to tap into the other 50 per cent of our population, namely, women.
Providing Role Models
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” is one of Campbell’s favourite sayings. She believes that getting more women into skilled trades will require more promotion in schools.
“Young girls need to see that trades are a cool option, a viable option, and not something that is just too far out of reach or is a ‘boy’s job,’” she says.
Campbell gives talks to grades 7-10 girls across the country about her experiences working in construction. “It’s great. I get to tell my story and speak to many young women about getting into the trades.”
She wants young women to know that, if they are questioning whether university is the right route for them, there are other options.
Providing mentorship and role models for young women is a gap that Techsploration, a Nova Scotian non-for-profit organization, has been working to fill. Techsploration reaches out to girls in grades 9-12 to encourage them to consider careers in science, trades and technology by using hands-on, mentor-led programming where school-age girls can interact with role models who are women actively working in these careers. The organization wants girls to see these occupations not as inherently masculine or feminine, but as important and valuable career options that are crucial to society.
Working with 40 schools in Nova Scotia, the organization reaches about 3,500 students per year and about a third of their programming is in skilled trades career exploration.
Techsploration offers a variety of programming including in-school visits by role models and job shadow days where students visit role models at their workplace. After workplace visits the girls go back to their school and give a presentation on what they learned to their entire school so that both the girls and boys are exposed to these careers. Techsploration also holds three large career events annually (at Saint Mary’s University, NSCC Straight Campus and NSCC Truro Campus) where all the role models from across the province come together and the young women have the opportunity to meet them. Students can participate every year up to grade 12, giving them access to about 125 role models representing 125 different career opportunities. After participation, the young women become Techsploration alumni and can attend an annual alumni conference.
“I have now seen young women go from being Techsploration participants in grade 9 to starting their own careers in the trades,” says Frigault. She believes that Techsploration fills a gap in the education system since so many trades classes have been cut from the curriculum. “Techsploration gives hands-on experience but even just the exposure to trades as career options is important. I’ve gone to schools where the students have said ‘Really? These are options for us?’ and I say ‘of course!’” says Frigault. Techsploration is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018.
Programs such as Techsploration and Women Unlimited, another Nova Scotia non-profit organization, give women a chance to try out a variety of trades for themselves so that they have the experience to make an informed decision when choosing a career path in college.
Women Unlimited has been supporting women as they build careers in the trades and technology fields since 2006. With programs running out of NSCC campuses in Bridgewater, Halifax, Dartmouth and Sydney, Women Unlimited has helped more than 700 women explore skilled trades careers from their free 14-week Career Exploration Program (CEP), through pre-apprenticeship training, employment and through apprenticeship to certification. The CEP gives women hands-on exposure to a variety of trades and technology careers (including the building trades), as well as site visits with local employers and panel discussions with women working in the trades. To date, more than 175 employers have hired Women Unlimited graduates.
Campbell believes that programs like these are working. “The WIST course I took was absolutely what got me into the trades because I felt I was supported,” says Campbell, whose course was similar to Women Unlimited’s CEP. “I was learning how to use power tools in the company of other women so at least I had a basis where I felt comfortable and it wasn’t daunting. I had a skill base when I went out into the real world.”
When Frigault took her apprenticeship classes as she worked toward her Red Seal in the 1990s, she was the only woman in any of her classes. “For the first four years I was the only women on any job site that I worked on. There were no female plumbers or carpenters or anything. There was just me.” But participation of women in skilled trades education is increasing. The number of women apprentices in the non-traditional trades has increased 33 per cent according to the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency.
While this shows growth, the overall numbers are still a drop in the bucket, considering that there were a total of more than 6,000 active apprentices in the province in 2016 and only 348 of them were women. Of these 348 women, 235 were in non-traditional trades including residential and non-residential construction. The greatest increases in trades chosen by female apprentices were seen in construction electrician and welder, for which female apprentice participation increased by 13 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively, between 2011 and 2016.
“I think the biggest barrier facing young women trying to get into the trades is lack of mentorship,” says Frigault. “I was fortunate to work for a very supportive company, but for some women they are on a job site that isn’t very welcoming, where they have no one to talk to. I think that’s where you start to see the numbers of women working in the trades fall.” Frigault has been a Techsploration role model for five years and mentors female students in her NSCC classes as well.
“I didn’t have any female teachers until this year,” says Courtney Theriault, a second year Pipe Trades student at NSCC. “But in my first year I networked with Ronda [Frigault]. I talked to her a lot because I was nervous being a woman in the trade. Over the past year she has been the one to make me extremely comfortable and more confident about being a woman in the trades.” At least 10 per cent of Frigault’s students are women every year now.
“Being a woman in the trades is scary,” says Theriault. “But as long as you believe you can do it, you can do anything. I am learning that every single day.”
Confidence is key, and encouraging young women to act on their interests, regardless of industry trends or stereotypes, is a crucial step. Jewdi McCarthy, a local skilled tradesperson with All-Craft Renovations in Bedford, can attest to this. “I’ve always had a passion for building and creating things with my hands and I wanted a career where I could put my skills to a good use, so carpentry became my future. When I decided I wanted to do carpentry it wasn’t common for women to do this for a living. Because of my size and gender, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to handle the work.”
McCarthy recalls how this motivated her. “I laughed and said, ‘there wasn’t anything a man could do that I couldn’t’ with regards to being a carpenter.” She adds, “I might only be 5’5″ and 120 pounds, but I wasn’t about to let my size stop me from doing what I had a passion for.”
Now in her 16th year in the industry as a professional carpenter and renovator, McCarthy stands with other successful tradeswomen as positive role models for young people to emulate.
Frigault sees the importance of young women and men seeing strong female role models in the trades. It opens up options for young women, but it also shows young men that women do belong in those roles.
“I’ve seen women working on job sites being questioned a lot more than men are. They are asked ‘Do you really know how to do this?’ whereas male workers typically aren’t questioned in the same way. If you see women on your job site, just give them a chance!”
Campbell would love to see more women get interested in the skilled trades and encourages them to explore and experiment to find their passions. “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and make mistakes,” Campbell advises. “I was afraid for the longest time because there was always that microscope on me, but I learned over time that mistakes are how you learn. I feel that sometimes, as women, we feel we need to be perfect and I want to try to break that mould as well. It’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to not be perfect, it’s OK to be yourself.”
And that is certainly good advice for anyone to build on.