Women in Skilled Trades: Rising to the Challenge

It won’t come as a revelation to most people that there is an acute shortage of skilled tradespersons in Durham Region, along with the rest of Canada.  The construction and manufacturing industries are feeling the pinch.  The Globe and Mail reports that “a recent survey by the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance reported that 41 percent of employers would hire more people if they could find those with the skills they need”.

This presents a golden opportunity for young women as well as young men to enter an in-demand, well-paid field.

Decades ago, the prevailing thought was that skilled trades were meant for men and that women should be relegated to office or domestic work.  Times have changed significantly with more women in positions of authority in the workforce, which is a good thing. 

Women now represent 48% of the labour force and across many traditional blue-collar industries, their numbers are rapidly increasing.  This is not only socially a step in the right direction but from an overall GDP perspective, it’s essential given our shrinking workforce.

Dispatch industries that require install and service technicians such as HVAC, plumbing or electrical are seeing increases in female participation.  Moreover, one of the largest increases in female participation is construction.  In prior decades, women’s role in general contracting, home building or home renovation/restoration was mostly relegated to administrative tasks in the office.  In 2019, women are smashing through previous barriers and becoming more pervasive on jobs sites doing jobs from skilled labour to sit management. 

Barriers to Women in Skilled Trades are Evaporating

From a social standpoint, women were traditionally discouraged from pursuing skilled trade occupations but when the focus shifted to workplace equality in all aspects, this stance began to change as well.  Still, even though many skilled trade unions and employers are welcoming women with open arms, a lot of women themselves are reluctant to enter skilled trades, some because they fear on-the-job bullying or sexual harassment from male counterparts, some because they have the misconception that these jobs require great physical strength, some because they doubt that companies will provide suitable in-house and on-site facilities (there’s nothing worse than a port-a-potty used by a bunch of men with lousy aim), and other reasons that may or may not have foundation.  There’s no denying that such conditions can exist in skilled trades as well as other workplaces, but enlightened and responsible employers are alert to discriminatory practices and quickly take effective measures to deal with them.

Skilled Trades College of Canada (STCC) reveals that about 15 women enroll each academic year and female students rival their male counterparts when it comes to academics as well as soft skills such as punctuality and attention to detail.  Women are also more open to pursuing skilled trades because of high earning potential. 

Canada’s Building Trades Union (CBTU) is working to increase the number of women in occupations like construction.  Partnering with several organization, CBTU offers ongoing support services for women in trades.  The federal government recently announced funding of just over $3 million to assist women in apprenticeships over the next three years.  Their program is expected to serve more than 750 women apprentices, and effectively increase the number of Canadian women in skilled trades by approximately 30%.

Since women started entering the workforce, there have been many individuals and organizations that have blazed a path for women to be accepted in various skilled trades ranging from ironworking to automotive technology.  Ignoring barriers and stereotypes, women in skilled trades have excelled in their roles and serve as inspiration to any woman considering embarking on a non-traditional career path.

One of the most inspirational women in ironworking is Jamie McMillan, a highly-respected ironworker with a passion for advocating for women in skilled trades, who is trailblazing the path to increased participation for females in trades.  First entering the field in 2002, McMillan has gone on to mentor women everywhere, encouraging them to pursue careers in skilled trades without fear of stereotypes or discrimination.  Additionally, she founded the J♀urneyman organization with the goal of promoting vocational education and representation of women in skilled trades in the workplace, classroom settings, and trade shows.  Jamie McMillan works tirelessly to break down barriers and educate women on the possibilities that lie within skilled trade occupations.

On an organizational level, there are groups across the country dedicated solely to empowering women entering into traditionally male-dominated industries.  Organizations like Canadian Association of Women in Construction are devoted to providing support to women pursuing skilled trade careers.  Locally, Durham College launched a pre-apprenticeship program in 2016 to prepare and encourage women to enter the skilled trades segment.  The program goes beyond providing apprenticeship training and help with placement.  Durham College has partnered with the Microskills Community Development Centre to provide instruction in areas such as “maintaining personal and professional boundaries; forms of harassment and strategies to address the situation; problem solving for work-life balance conflicts; and job mobility and developing leadership potential”.

Women in Skilled Trades: The Attitude is Shifting

Despite promising statistics on women entering skilled trades, many are still reluctant to join.  Data from the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) suggests that construction is often not the first choice for female students.  As of 2018, women made up 13% of the college’s student body, though that includes all trades, not just male-dominated occupations.  Since 20% of the labour force is expected to retire in the next decade, OCOT is encouraging women to pursue education and careers as electricians, construction workers, carpenters, and plumbers.  To further this goal, OCOT is working to recruit more women into its programs as a way to replenish the dwindling workforce.

The demand for skilled labor is at an all-time high and the attitude toward women is evolving daily.  When it comes to filling skilled labor positions, the chief concern of employers is hiring and retaining qualified candidates, regardless of gender. 

In the words of Stephanie Brown, one woman who traded a more “traditional woman’s job” for one in construction:

“It’s awesome to look at something at the end of the day and say, ‘I did that.’ Or drive past a house a year down the road and say, ‘I helped build this house. They have their lights on because of me.’”

“If women want to apply and work in a career that they can just be proud of at the end of the day, this is an option. It’s real-world skills you’re always going to have.”

While many employers don’t need to be convinced to hire qualified women for skilled trades jobs, there are several key considerations for businesses interested in increasing the number of female employees.  According to research recently published by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, Innovation by Design: The Case for Investing in Women, hiring women is a great way to enhance the modern workplace.  Here are just a few points from the study:

  • Teams with at least one female member had collectively higher IQs than all-male teams
  • A Gallup poll indicated that companies with more women employees reduce turnover by 22%
  • An international poll showed that companies with a larger female workforce experienced greater psychological safety, better problem-solving, and improved efficiency.

Why does it matter how many women are in the workplace?  The short answer is, the more diversity in the workplace, the better the work environment is for everyone.  Having teams with female members leads to more creativity that fosters the innovation that’s critical for ever-evolving companies.  Additionally, research has proven that gender-diverse companies outpace the competition by 15% when it comes to revenue.  According to a research paper that appeared in Management Science, businesses that had 50% female and 50% male employees were more likely to succeed in business ventures thanks to increased efficiency and accountability.

So how can employers encourage women to enter skilled trade occupations?  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs in New Zealand has a few universally-applicable key suggestions for recruiting female job candidates:

Use gender-neutral pronouns in jobs descriptions such as tradesperson instead of tradesman

    • Include women in company images displayed on websites and promotional materials
    • Ensure that PPE is unisex or gender specific to maximize the safety and comfort of female workers
    • Collaborate with technical colleges to spread the word that women are welcome at your company and encourage women to apply upon graduation
  • Encourage female workers to conduct training and to speak at industry events

Durham Recruiting supports and encourages women to enter this satisfying and well-paid career path.