As a professional photographer, Danielle Schön preferred the darkroom, working with her hands to manipulate the image rather than capturing it in the field. Gravitating toward tactile work, she took a nighttime welding class as a hobby. Sparks flew, and she found her calling.
Ms. Schön continued to earn more qualifications, but everything clicked when the long-time cycling enthusiast took a bike frame building course with Paul Brodie, a renowned Vancouver mountain bike builder.
After apprenticing with Mr. Brodie and another builder in Toronto, she decided to open her own studio. Now, as the owner/operator of Schön Studio in Squamish, B.C., she’s one of the few female bike frame builders in North America.
Ms. Schön’s work is an example of the less traditional welding opportunities in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. She remembers how early in her career, a security guard tried to stop her from entering a job site.
“He said, ‘You are too pretty to be a welder,’” she says. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just left.”
Today, Ms. Schön says she would have stood her ground. Ten years in the business and support from other women have toughened her up.
“It’s definitely getting better, but not seeing yourself reflected in any school environments, work environments, management, career opportunities, definitely makes it feel like it’s not a place for you,” says Ms. Schön. She recently began teaching bike frame building and hopes to someday start a women-only school.
A changing industry
Women represent less than 10 per cent of all Red Seal trade certificate holders in Canada, according to a 2021 report by the Labour Market Information Council (LMIC) and the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) based at the University of Ottawa. Red Seal trades include welders, electricians, machinists, roofers, cooks and hairstylists.
Tamara Pongracz, department head, Trades Access, at BC Institute for Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby, B.C., says that back when she first entered the industry, the only female welding mentor she had was a character in the 1983 movie Flashdance.
As someone who is part Indigenous, Ms. Pongracz says she related to the film’s darker-skinned protagonist (played by Jennifer Beals). “But what really struck me is that she had her own apartment. She had her independence,” she says.
Ms. Pongracz notes that now, employers are actively recruiting women from BCIT, including Indigenous women and women of colour. She describes the BCIT program as offering a smorgasbord of welding applications, not the dimly-lit, hot and dirty workspace of years ago.
“Welding and fabrication lead to so many different doors opening, whether that’s engineering, project management or advanced manufacturing,” says Ms. Pongracz. Welding can be everything from making pacemakers to Teslas to giant sculptures, she adds.
While women are more welcome in the skilled trades than in the past, it can be challenging to change young women’s perceptions of this space. In a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only two per cent of 15-year-old female students said they were interested in a trades career.
In 2018, after an injection of government funding, the Canadian Welding Bureau Foundation (CWB) launched Women of Steel (WOS), a campaign to connect young female welders to mentors. Today, there are 80 members.
The following year, WOS created a 30-hour Introduction to Welding Program for post-secondary students.
“One of the biggest things with women in welding is that they’re scared to strike their first arc,” says Mary Fuke, program manager for the CWB. (Striking an arc refers to establishing a welding current between the welding electrode and base metal.) But when they do, “it’s amazing to see the look on their face,” Ms. Fuke says. “After that, their confidence soars.”
A need for safe spaces
About 20 schools, including one in the Yukon, offer the CWB certified program; to date, it has a 95 per cent enrollment and an almost 87 per cent pass rate (with women scoring higher than men on average). According to the CWB, a new graduate can earn $57,000 to $70,000 and wages increase with each level of education, unlike many entry-level jobs.
It’s also an industry in demand: In January 2022, the Canadian government announced that 700,000 skilled trades workers are expected to retire by 2028.
But many of those jobs are often located in challenging rural and/or isolated regions.
“There are still organizations and employers out there that don’t even have a women’s changing room,” says Ms. Fuke. Smaller companies might not have the budget to make adjustments or even hire HR staff if women need support. Without these safe spaces, women won’t stay, she says.
In B.C., an initiative called Be More Than a Bystander was started by the BC Centre for Women in the Trades and the Ending Violence Association of BC to eliminate gender-based bullying and harassment.
“It’s a chance for men to become allies for women,” says Ms. Pongracz.
She notes that as more women enter the field and find employment that matches their personalities and career aspirations, much like Ms. Schön, the industry will mature and evolve.
“I’ve been training young men and they have a different view of who a tradesperson is than their forefathers did because they’re working with tradeswomen,” says Ms. Pongracz. “Those dinosaurs are becoming extinct.”
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