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Rope access specialist Keeley Proctiw in the supply room at Acuren, in Fort McMurray, Alta.Greg Halinda

Seven years ago, Keeley Prockiw, a single mom in Edmonton, was struggling to stay afloat – financially and emotionally – when she decided to bet on herself and chase a career in the skilled trades. The decision altered the trajectory of her life.

Ms. Prockiw, now 39, is a Red Seal welder and rope access supervisor who works in the oil sands in Northern Alberta. (Red Seal is the national standard for excellence in welding and other skilled trades in Canada.) As a rope access technician, Ms. Prockiw uses climbing techniques – much like those used by mountain climbers – to carry out maintenance and repair jobs on industrial equipment in inaccessible and hard-to-reach areas.

Since learning her trade, Ms. Prockiw has made a swift ascent up the trades career ladder. She is one of only 24 female level 3 Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) certified technicians in North America, which includes Canada, U.S. Mexico and Trinidad. Worldwide, there are just 126 women with level 3 certificates, according to Richie Spence, North American Regional Advisory Committee Chair at IRATA.

“Before I got into the trades, I was stuck in a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship that stripped me of all my self-confidence,” Ms. Prockiw says. “I am nowhere near the person I was then. I am confident in what I know and do as a rope access technician.”

As a supervisor, Ms. Prockiw oversees a crew of two to 10 workers.

Whenever necessary, she also straps on the harness and hauls heavy welding equipment weighing 50 lbs. Some days the task could be removing snow and ice from equipment, other days it could be troubleshooting or welding broken parts.

There’s also a fair bit of mentoring, monitoring and devising a fail-proof strategy for each job.

“You need to have physical and mental strength,” Ms. Prockiw explains, adding she and her team carry out jobs all year round, even during unforgiving weather.

Overcoming barriers

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Ms. Prockiw uses climbing techniques similar to those of mountain climbers in order to carry out maintenance on industrial equipment in hard-to-reach areas.supplied

Having made inroads in a male-dominated industry through pluck and perseverance, Ms. Prockiw is now determined to kick doors open for other women.

Six years ago, when Ms. Prockiw accepted the rig gig, there were hardly any women rope access technicians. At times, she would be the only woman in the crew. She says she often felt a sense of isolation, and was wary of bawdy jokes and chauvinism in the workplace.

“Some men are brash and have archaic views [about women],” she says. “That can be a big mental thing to overcome. I have learned, you can’t single-handedly change the entire work culture at a rig. You can only change your attitude.”

Ms. Prockiw found her way to her current career in 2011, when she attended a journeywoman program run by Women Building Futures (WBF), an Edmonton-based non-profit. The program introduces women to a variety of different trades, including welding, carpentry, plumbing and pipefitting, and provides introductory skills training in these areas.

Since its founding in 1998, WBF has been working to remove barriers for women seeking economic independence through a career in trades. It offers tuition-free training for women who normally wouldn’t be able to afford pre-apprenticeship training.

After completing her tuition-free training with the WBF, Ms. Prockiw was hired by one of their industry partners. She says the organization gave her the necessary tools and confidence to succeed.

Carol Moen, president and CEO of WBF, points out that there are barriers for women in trades that may make them wary of pursuing a career in this area. For starters, daycares, especially in urban areas, are only open during specific hours and generally cater to the nine-to-five workers. (Ms. Prockiw’s work day typically begins at 6 a.m.) Other roadblocks include a lack of general awareness of opportunities in the trades, housing challenges and lack of academic readiness, she says.

‘Changing the face of the industry’

WBF creates awareness and interest in trades among women by steering them toward opportunities in maintenance, construction and driving and operating industries. The organization helps students with interview skills training, resume development and employment referrals with industry partners. In 2020, some 127 women graduated from WBF’s trades programs (24 per cent were Indigenous women).

Additionally, the non-profit provided housing for 63 women and children, says Ms. Moen. The Edmonton training facility includes fully furnished studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom suites.

“While WBF is connecting women – many [of them] single moms – to economically secure futures, we are at the same time changing the face of industry,” says Ms. Moen.

She points out that the construction industry is facing an anticipated loss of more than approximately 250,000 skilled workers, or 21 per cent of its current labour force in the near future. Despite representing an estimated 47 per cent of the Canadian labour force, women make up less than 4 per cent of the on-site construction and maintenance trades work force across Canada, she notes.

While women still make up a small percentage of the trades work force in Canada, there is potential for a new generation to change that. Ms. Prockiw experienced a powerful feeling of validation – and joy – when her 20-year-old daughter received her IRATA certificate.

“My daughter doing this pushes me to work on making the [job] environment better,” she says. “If I make it better for my daughter, it’s going to be better for other women as well.”

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