Dasia Morris has been working as a plumber in Ontario since October, 2021. In that time, she has worked at two different job sites, a Rogers building in Brampton and, more recently, the Granite Club on Bayview Avenue in Toronto.
In each case, she has been the lone woman on site.
However, rather than the catcalls of old, Ms. Morris, 28, who has a degree in psychology and biology, has been encouraged by the reactions she’s received. “A lot of guys will pass me as I’m working [and say] ‘Oh wow, that’s really amazing that you’re working in the trades. … We’re trying to push our daughters to do it.’”
These days, thankfully, if the daughters of tradesmen want to follow in their father’s footsteps, there are organizations ready and willing to help, such as the Bolt Foundation, which offers the new women in construction scholarship, Support Ontario Youth (SOY), which offers apprenticeships and mentorship, and Ontario Building & Construction Tradeswomen (OBCT), an advocacy group that raises awareness and offers mentorship
“A lot has changed in the past decade or so,” Bolt executive director Raly Chakarova says. “There are still a lot of stereotypes … and in parallel to that there’s just not enough knowledge of the industry. … Nobody really knows what a sheet metal worker does, or what an iron worker does, or a taper.”
The other, much more serious problem is that while women make up 40 per cent of off-site jobs in construction, that number whittles down to just 4 per cent on site. Worse than that is retention: of new apprenticeship registrations, only 4.8 per cent are women; of those, less than half complete their apprenticeship.
“So we have women that are starting these careers,” Ms. Chakarova says, “but for whatever reason they’re dropping off and we’re losing them.”
“That’s very hard to digest,” says Kayla Bailey, 26, a steamfitter, gasfitter and welder and project manager with OBCT. “I’ve seen quite a few sisters join the trades and then you don’t see them. … A lot of the time you’re not even able to follow up to ask ‘why did you leave?’ Women are signing up for a trade, they’re signing up for a career, they’re not signing up to be harassed, they’re not signing up to deal with abuse. … It’s a hard job as it is and then the emotional labour that goes on top of that is just, for a lot of people, it’s way too much.”
The key, it’s hoped, is mentorships. Brandi Ferenc, who has been “on the tools” for 17 years and currently works as an HVAC mechanic at Southlake Hospital in Newmarket, Ont., has decided to volunteer her time with SOY as a mentor to 12 apprentices (only one of which is a woman).
“Seventeen years ago, there wasn’t anything like this,” she says. “My first really big job was on a construction site … for building a hotel, and it was basically 300 guys and myself, so I remember pulling into that site the first day and not wanting to get out of my car.” Luckily, she had a friend she could call, and that friend urged her to get out there, tune out anything negative, and get to work.
Mentorship “wasn’t even a word I remember hearing back then,” says Ms. Bailey, who began her career in 2014. “I think my journey as an apprentice would have been a lot different had I had that.”
Of course all the mentorships in the world won’t matter if women aren’t exposed to the incredible opportunities the trades offer. Not only does the GTA continue to experience an incredible building boom as well as a labour shortage, as Ms. Chakarova says, “the average starting salary with zero experience, and a grade 10 education in construction is $24 [an hour] … with the demographic that we work with, which are a majority of the time low income, some single mothers, it is incredibly appealing.”
So, how to get the message out? One way is Bolt’s “Speak Out” on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022. With the theme of “Break the Bias,” registrants will hear from a panel of female industry professionals about pathways, challenges, and, ultimately, the rewards of working in construction.
“I’m all about honesty,” says Ms. Bailey, one of the speakers. “I’m going to tell them that, you know what, it’s not always an easy gig, but also encourage them to get in because, for me, it changed my life. As a unionized steamfitter I make upwards of $100,000 a year, I’ve got benefits [and] a pension … this could be the avenue to own a home, own a condo.”
It sounds like a no-brainer, but unless high school-aged women are given this information, things won’t change as quickly as they should. “The younger the better,” Ms. Chakarova says. “The push has always been that you have to go to college, you have to go to university, to the point where we have baristas with their honours Bachelor of Arts wondering, ‘how did I get here?’”
Still, there is optimism. A half-percentage at a time, perhaps, but, one day soon 10 per cent of the skilled trades will be women, and then 20. “As the industry gets younger,” agrees Ms. Chakarova, who points out that about a third of the existing labour force is expected to retire by 2025, “as it gets more diverse, it just naturally will get better and better.”
“The momentum is there now,” agrees Ms. Ferenc, who also teaches HVAC at Georgian College in Barrie. “The technology is there, the tools are better and women, like myself and my peers, we have made a difference. … We’re a valuable member of the team.”
“I think women are starting to get more vocal,” Ms. Bailey says. “Over the last two or three years, I’ve noticed that, for lack of a better word, they’re willing to get a little bit more militant and stand up for themselves and their fellow sisters.”
“Because of social media and networking it’s a lot easier to have support and push through,” Ms. Morris says, “but I think it’s going to be a long time [before] we have more than one woman on a job site.”
Bolt’s “Speak Outs” are archived at https://boltonline.org/speak-outs/
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