It's a long way from the receptionist's job she once held in a busy brokerage house to her current job as a longshore worker on Vancouver's waterfront -- but Karen Suttie has no intention of ever switching back.
Ms. Suttie, 39, starts her day with a 6:45 a.m. trip to a hall on the East Vancouver waterfront, where jobs are assigned in shifts, seven days a week. It's a big building divided down the middle -- union members on one side, non-union casuals on the other.
Along with perhaps 500 others, she'll turn her "plate" -- a piece of metal about the size of a business card that lists name, employee number and qualifications -- to face the inside of the dispatch wicket to indicate she's available to work.
Ms. Suttie then heads to the non-union side of the hall and waits for her name to be called.
With only four years on the job, she is still pretty low on the seniority ladder, and has not racked up the thousands of hours it can take to become a fully fledged member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with all the benefits and opportunities for training in skilled areas that come with it. She is still a casual, and must wait until all the union names have been called.
There is no guarantee she will get work on any given day. But if she does, she might find herself dispatched to the cruise ship terminal to load bags on a passenger ship or sent to the bulk dock to operate a lift truck.
In some ways, not much has changed over the years in the work life on the Vancouver waterfront. Employees still look out to the harbour and count the number of ships before heading to the hall -- more ships mean more work.
But, unlike the past few years, an improving economy means the port is becoming a busier place, union members are retiring in increasing numbers, and new bodies are needed to fill the jobs.
On top of that, the Canadian Human Rights Commission is pressuring the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) to boost the representation of women among longshore worker ranks.
Altogether, there are about 3,600 waterfront workers in British Columbia (Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Vancouver Island and New Westminster). Of those, about 190, or just over 5 per cent, are women. The commission wants that proportion bumped up to almost 7 per cent -- which presents a huge opportunity for women considering a career change.
As a result of all this, for the first time in about four years, BCMEA is hiring. In fact, 300 new names were drawn over the summer in a lottery-style system for jobs -- evenly split between men and women, on purpose.
Things are also looking up on the docks in other parts of the country, including Montreal and Halifax. Daniel Tremblay, president of the longshore union in Montreal, says 30 people were hired over the past 12 months; more will come as about 150 retirements are expected over the next five years. Of the nearly 900 people who work on the Montreal waterfront, about 35 are women.
Meanwhile, Angela Charlton, contract administrator for the Halifax Employers Association, says her group is in the process of hiring 80 new workers on the waterfront, of which at least 24 will be women. Ms. Charlton says the association also wants to establish a casual labour pool of about 200, about 70 of them women. Currently, there are 455 workers on Halifax's waterfront, 27 of them women.
While not every little girl dreams of becoming a longshore worker, more women are finding that, if they can hack the physical nature of the job, then the rewards are many, including flexible hours, on-the-job training and pay that starts at $29.26 an hour on weekday shifts, rising to $46.82 on weekends.
Lee Macri, 53, has worked on the Vancouver waterfront for 17 years. It took her 12 of those years to work her way into the union; she was the seventh woman to do so. Once longshore workers have built up seniority, they are eligible to apply for training in jobs such as bulldozer operators, computer checkers and bulk ship loaders. Ms. Macri is a driver.
"You have to put in your time, and the work gets easier," she says.
Like Ms. Macri, Ms. Suttie married a longshoreman and the waterfront has been part of her life for 20 years. "It's not just a job, it's a lifestyle," she says.
For 48-year-old April Hurmuses, 14 years as a railway conductor and another seven as a longshore worker helped raise two stepdaughters, now 15 and 18, and put her Ms. Hurmuses through a graduate degree in urban planning at the University of British Columbia.
Now it gives her the flexibility to take months off at a time to do other things, such as write the book she aspires to. "I am by no means unique," she says. "We have a documentary filmmaker, musicians, all kinds of people who do all kinds of interesting things."
The longshore system of having to physically appear at the hall to get work also gives the women flexibility.
"Because we work out of a hall, we have the freedom of not going to work; we can work when we want," Ms. Macri says.
And on the job, "one of the fantastic things about working on the waterfront is that it's never the same. Every day it's a different ship, a different job, a different dock, different people."
According to Onkar Athwell, BCMEA's vice-president of operations, there is never a shortage of willing workers for the waterfront. A hiring spree in 2000 drew 4,000 applications for 150 jobs. This July, a notice posted for 24 hours in the dispatch hall drew 700 applications for 50 jobs. The following month, almost 1,000 people applied for 250 jobs.
While there has never been a better time for a woman to secure a job on the waterfront, there are still tough physical challenges. Workers must prove they have the strength for cargo lashing and loading containers that pile five high aboard a ship.
Everyone must undergo a series of written tests, as well as pass a timed lashing test, which consists of handling lashing bars that average 24 kilograms (55 pounds) and can vary from 2½ to 5 metres (eight to 16 feet) in length.
The physical test can be a barrier to women largely unused to heavy labour. That's one of the reasons Ms. Suttie and a handful of other women for the first time took it upon themselves in August to arrange a lashing training session.
"We're just not born with the same muscles across the shoulders that the guys have. A lot of us do junior-level office work. Maybe we've been sitting at a desk for the past 15 years pushing a pen," says Ms. Suttie, who weighs in at a mere 110 pounds. "[The test]eliminated a lot of the women from gaining employment. We thought it would be great if we could help those women, maybe give them some tools needed to pass."
The women borrowed a lashing bar and ran simulated tests at a local high school over four days, teaching the trainees how to lift and manoeuvre heavy objects, and giving them an idea of what to expect in the actual test.
Ms. Suttie says the training made a huge difference. Sixty-two of the 150 women whose names were drawn in the lottery passed and were registered to begin work on the waterfront, along with 116 of the 150 men. And the women will tell you that there is no life quite like longshoring.
"It's, without a doubt, the greatest experience of my life," Ms. Macri says. "It created a challenge that I know a lot of girls never get in their life."
Need to know
How to lift and manoeuvre weights of 20 kilograms (50 pounds) or more.
Be able to pull your weight in an environment where the team you are working with, the location and the type of job you do changes every day. Accept a certain amount of waiting around for a job and the uncertainty of whether you'll be working on any given day.
What you need
Class 5 driver's licence. Training is almost entirely on the job. Once longshore workers have built up seniority, they are eligible to apply for training in jobs such as bulldozer operators, computer checkers and bulk ship loaders.
Depending on the hours you are able or willing to work, average incomes on the waterfront in all areas of the country tend to range between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. In Vancouver, for example, a weekday base rate is $29.26 an hour and $46.82 on the weekends. Add up to $1.50 an hour for skill differentials and more for evening and graveyard shifts.
Getting a job
The best chance to get a job on the waterfront is at Vancouver, Montreal or Halifax. In Vancouver, hiring is through the B.C. Maritime Employers Association ( http://www.bcmea.com). Jobs are often not advertised but posted at the East Vancouver waterfront dispatch hall.
Once your name is in, jobs are drawn out in a lottery-style system.