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thought leaders

The Globe and Mail has sought out a series of columns from thought leaders in Western Canada, people whose influence is shaping debate but whose names may not be widely recognized.

Much has been written, and much discussion has followed, about the need to increase the number of women on boards of directors and at senior levels of management in Canadian companies. While this is an important topic, another opportunity related to women in the workplace has received far less attention, yet has the power to truly change women's lives for the better – lots of women's lives.

That opportunity is increasing the number of women employed in the skilled trades. At a time when skilled trades – defined broadly as an occupation that requires specialized skills and knowledge, and apprenticeship training and certification – are more in demand than ever, we have the opportunity to help women substantially improve their standard of living.

While women are fairly well-represented in a few service-sector trades – florists and hair stylists, for example – they are seriously underrepresented in trades such as electricians, heavy duty mechanics, welders and millwrights, to name a few. The gender mix in skilled trades continues to be highly unbalanced. In fact, men accounted for 93.4 per cent of all trades workers in 2011, with this proportion not having changed materially over the past two decades.

When you marry this with the fact that Canada's labour market already suffers from an acute shortage of skilled workers – a recent report by CIBC suggested as much as one-fifth of the labour market does not have enough qualified workers – we have a significant opportunity to increase women's participation in trades and, by extension, their wages. In the sector I work in, mining, it is expected that we will need to find 81,000 new workers over the next decade as many in the industry head toward retirement.

Considering that the average salary and benefits for someone working in B.C.'s mining industry in 2013 was $114,600, one wonders why more women are not pursuing these jobs. Particularly when you compare, for example, an electrician's average hourly wage of $34 to that of a florist, whose typical hourly wage is approximately $14.

While women's overall participation in the work force has increased dramatically over the past number of years, they continue to face low-income conditions. In fact, low-income women in Canada face a larger wage gap with their male counterparts than low-income women in most other OECD countries. Getting more women into skilled trades positions can be part of the solution to changing this equation.

I have two suggestions for how we can make progress. The first is that we put formal targets in place for women in skilled trades. Industry, labour and governments have an important role to play in this. The second is that we start having the discussion about getting women into skilled trades much more broadly. It needs more attention on the national policy discussion stage. Parents need to see a future of possibilities for their daughters that includes jobs such as carpenters, electricians and industrial mechanics. Our educators and career counsellors need to promote these jobs as viable career options for women.

I have had the privilege of meeting skilled trades' women working in our company and I've asked about the barriers to entering these roles. There are not many that they cite, other than a general lack of awareness about the opportunities and a lack of role models. The women in these jobs may be small in number today, but they are powerful in the message they send to others. They can become the role models for other women coming behind them and when more girls in high schools can see themselves in a skilled trade, we will see participation rates increase and women will reap the benefits these careers offer.

Marcia Smith is senior vice-president, sustainability and external affairs, with Teck Resources Ltd. She has global responsibility for the company for safety, environment, sustainability, community and government relations and communications.

Ms. Smith represents Teck, along with CEO Don Lindsay, at the International Council on Mining and Metals and with the World Economic Forum. She serves on the boards of the Mining Association of Canada and the Business Council of British Columbia.

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