Mary Ross and Sandy Law have never met, but both say they made a life-altering decision this year.
The women are at different points in their lives – Ms. Ross of Burlington, Ont., is 27 while Ms. Law, who lives in Cambridge, Ont., is 46 – but each was unsatisfied with the direction of their working lives.
Ms. Ross was working part-time jobs and feeling her self-esteem taking a nosedive. Ms. Law had finished a 20-year career managing a pizza shop in Milton, Ont., and was working in security, but she says she "hated it and wanted to get out of it."
This year, they decided to try their hand at skilled trades, enrolling in women-only programs at two Ontario colleges. Each has found the experience rewarding.
"It has probably been the best thing that has ever happened to me," Ms. Ross says. "It has definitely boosted my confidence and self-esteem."
Ms. Ross is enrolled in the enhanced general carpentry program at the Centre for Skills Development & Training in Burlington; Ms. Law is taking part in the pre-apprenticeship carpenter general certificate at Conestoga College in Waterloo, Ont. Both courses are part of an initiative called Women in Skilled Trades, funded by the Ontario Women's Directorate, which encourages women to enter these areas.
Women-only courses are cropping up at colleges and technical training centres across Canada. These help more women to enter the skilled trades at a time when there is an employment shortage in that area, says Shaun Thorson, chief executive officer of Skills Canada. According to a 2009 Statistics Canada study, skilled trades are the most difficult job to fill because of a shortage of workers.Of skilled trades workers, only 6.4 per cent across the country were women in 2009, StatsCan says.
College courses geared toward women allow females to gather confidence and skills in a traditionally male-dominated sector before entering other classes or a workplace where they will mostly be around other men, administrators say. As well, the courses create bonds among classmates and build a support group that wouldn't be possible with men in the class.
Another bonus, says Brenda Gilmore, program manager for the School of Trades and Apprenticeship at Conestoga, is that they help women get out of dead-end, low-income jobs. "It's been life-changing for many women, certainly taking them out of poverty, and [many] have had a very vibrant career," she says.
Because the age range of women in these courses is generally wide – from early 20s to 50s – classroom atmospheres are enhanced, as each age group has things to share, from computer skills to life experience.
In the Conestoga carpentry program, women get a chance to try a range of skills, from using power tools to blueprint interpretations. And because many teachers are female tradespersons, students get the added bonus of life-long mentors, she says.
Upon completion, Conestoga has an 80-per-cent success rate in related employment. Women may choose to become carpentry apprentices, start their own companies or go back to school for more training, Ms. Gilmore says.
The Centre for Skills Development & Training was the first organization in the province to create the model for the women-only program a decade ago, says Nancy Moore, manager, employment services and skilled trades. Everything in the 29-week carpentry program, from tuition to power tools to parking, is fully funded.
The training at the centre is unique because women build an entire house from scratch and then tear it down. Students do it all – framing, drywall, windows, doors and plumbing. "When they really see that they can do it, it's amazing," Ms. Moore says. They also learn how to renovate existing structures, which is important because many women end up working in that field, in part due to more family-friendly hours.
Equally important to technical skills are "essential skills" needed on the job, Ms. Moore says. Those include communication, conflict resolution and attitude. "We try and take a holistic approach to training." And the women create a real "sisterhood," she says, creating Facebook groups and hosting potluck dinners, which she says is a different atmosphere than what you would find in a co-ed class.
Graduates leave with a pre-apprenticeship certificate in enhanced general carpentry. Some go on to large companies such as Mattamy Homes, sign on as apprentices or create their own home reno companies with classmates. Three graduates have worked for construction guru Mike Holmes on his television series. One student started a business specializing in home repairs for women, targeted at clients such as senior women who may not be comfortable having a male worker in their home.
Women bring unique skills to the workplace, Ms. Moore says, including attention to detail and a more collaborative, less competitive approach, which employers are beginning to value.
At Nova Scotia Community College, a unique 14-week preparation program called Women Unlimited introduces women to such trades as automotive, welding, rigging and electrical. They also visit workplaces such as shipyards and aerospace companies.
"The whole goal of the program is to address the systemic barriers women face when they are entering less traditional careers. A program like this incredibly increases their retention," says Tina Kelly, academic chair of Trades and Technology, from the Dartmouth campus.
Along with course work, women students need additional preparation to head into a male-dominated work force, Ms. Kelly says. That includes sexual harassment discussions, assertiveness training and role playing. "You have to be able to appropriately stand up for yourself."
She has seen this course make a difference in Nova Scotia. Although currently only four per cent of skilled trades workers in the province are women, the percentage of women taking trades at NSCC has grown from eight per cent to 15 per cent since the program began five or six years ago.
"The challenge has been, although they are usually in the top 10 per cent of their class, they are still the last to be hired." But employer attitudes are slowly changing, she adds. Those who have had women in their workplaces have found they have a more respectful work environment and that their company performance improves, she says.
Ms. Ross and Ms. Law aren't sure yet what they'll be doing upon completing their courses, but both feel that a range of opportunities have opened up. Ms. Ross would be happy to be hired as a general labourer, while Ms. Law is contemplating working in the home renovation sector.
"This is one of the best things I have ever done," Ms. Law says.
A sampling of other programs for women in skilled trades:
Saskatchewan:Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology's Women in Trades Exploratory course: Evening and weekend program introduces women to welding, automotive, carpentry and other trades.
Newfoundland and Labrador:Office to Advance Women Apprentices: Assists women once they have completed training to find jobs, and provides support along the way.
British Columbia: Camosun College, Victoria, Women in Trades Training Program: Twelve-week introductory program to trades; women learn about metal trades, mechanical, carpentry and plumbing.