By Valerie Overend
Recently I was delighted to hear a young woman gleefully make this proclamation at a Women Building Futures conference in Edmonton. As a second year bricklayer, she can not even imagine what her life will be like in two years when her pay cheque will increase by another 50 percent.
I remember having the same feeling when I got my first pay cheque from a commercial construction site. I hopped in my truck, drove my kids straight to the second hand store, handed them $10 each and told them they could buy whatever clothes they wanted, practical or not. I knew that I had made the best choice of my life. I was not going to suffer the common plight of many a single mother with no support from an absent father. Security and dignity were mine!
Back then, I sometimes wondered why I was the only woman on the job site. Sadly, 20 years later, the number of women entering the skilled trades is still shockingly low. Established tradeswomen, who love their jobs, express dismay that they don’t see young women lining up in droves to follow them into well-paying, creative, satisfying, innovative occupations.
In my role as the executive director of Saskatchewan Women in Trades and Technology (WITT), I often hear from women who wanted to try working in a trade but did not pursue their dreams. Their most common explanation for hesitation was concern about their own strength. They doubt themselves because they haven’t had opportunities to practice trades type work or see enough role models; examples of ordinary women who have built a successful career working in a trade.
While it’s very true that most trades are physical occupations, it’s a mistake to equate physical work with a need for great strength. Tradeswomen find many joys and rewards in physical labour. They speak with tremendous pride about their physical fitness and the fact that they get their workout without ever having to go to a gym. Others love working outdoors and appreciate the fact that they are not sitting at a desk all day. They all discover the rewards of seeing the results of their labour at the end of every day. In fact we like to show photos of our creations or drive by buildings we have constructed. Our confidence in our own abilities grows with the work that we do.
Physical occupations present many challenges where the good balance and smaller size that women usually have can be very advantageous. It doesn’t matter how strong someone is if they are afraid of heights and need to work from a ladder or a scaffolding platform. Tradeswomen quickly learn to use body mechanics for leverage to perform a difficult task or how to chose the proper equipment or tools to move a heavy object. I can only name a handful of times from my 25 years in the trade where I didn’t trust my own strength in a situation and asked for someone stronger to take my place on a task.
While women’s confidence in their own strength seems to be a major reason for avoiding trades, others express concern about getting dirty. This continues to amaze me when I compare my work (dusted in sawdust and my own sweat) to that of many health care workers who handle body fluids that are not their own, or to the work of custodial workers who clean toilets.
Women who chose not to enter trades occupations offer many reasons for their choice. What about those tradeswomen who do take the plunge? Most, like me, will admit to having many of the same inhibitions before entering. But we find that we are soon able to handle the physical demands and that we develop the necessary technical skills in a timely manner. Our job performance is usually rated high or very high by employers, and many tradeswomen rise to the top in their workplaces in short order.
Even those tradeswomen who leave their jobs and move on to other occupations seldom report inability to handle physical demands as the reason. The culture of the work environment is more likely to be the culprit that makes women uncomfortable. Tradeswomen who are the “lone woman” on a jobsite, as is too often the case, report strong feelings of isolation and “not belonging.” The negative social pressures of the workplace, not the physical demands of the job, are more important in most decisions to leave.
Tradeswomen recognize the problem. They have learned from their experience and have organized to pass on their knowledge. Through lobbying government, educational workshops, videos and programs, they are working together to remove barriers to women in trades. Nova Scotia WITT and Women in Resource Development in Newfoundland are two examples of provincial organizations working to prepare women as well as the workplaces that will hire them.
Overall wages for women in Canada are slightly over 70 percent of the wages that men are taking home. Even with some measurable progress in the struggle for pay equity, this discrepancy has barely been reduced over the past 10 years. A significant factor to explain this lies in the “choices” women make in their career selection. With 500 occupational classifications in the country, 75 percent of women are clustered in 20 of them. Many of these 20 occupations are low-paying, care-giving jobs.
Women who break free of the social constraints surrounding career selection are more likely to receive higher wages. Rejecting sexually stereotyped jobs and venturing into one of the other 480 occupations can open doors that few women, often very few, have ever entered. With only a couple of exceptions, trades are outside the cluster of 20 in the large portion of the pie. But breaking away from the social norm is the key to exploring these satisfying (and well-paying) occupations. Mothers and fathers need to open their minds and steer their daughters in new, rewarding directions.
An impending skills shortage in the trades means jobs are opening up to women. Opportunities to enter into construction, mechanical and manufacturing occupations are becoming available to women in the same way that opportunities opened in the medical and legal professions in the ’70s, and in the engineering technologies in the ’80s and ’90s. Pan-Canadian associations, National Sector Councils and major employers alike are beginning to identify women as one of the obvious labour pools on which to draw to solve the looming shortage.
Are women ready to take up the challenge? The answer seems clear. There is a new wave of young women beginning to enter the workforce. They know that they have a right to work in jobs that they choose. They want to assert ownership of their place in the world. They want to experience the joys and rewards of physical work
Keri Boyko, a woman in her mid-twenties, knows first-hand the benefits of working in a skilled trade. Keri completed four years of apprenticeship training and is one of less than a dozen women to achieve journeyperson status in her trade over the past 35 years in Saskatchewan. She co-owns and operates an electrical company in Moose Jaw and sits on the Saskatchewan Electrical Trade Advisory Board.
Keri started working as an electrician right after high school, where she got her first exposure to the trade. Her high school shop instructor encouraged her to use her mathematical abilities, her thirst for knowledge and her motivation to succeed by pursuing an apprenticeship as an electrician. When asked to provide some advice to other young women, Keri says, “Set goals for yourself and work hard towards them. A career as a tradesperson is very rewarding.”
Valerie Overend is an interprovincial journeyed carpenter and the executive director of Saskatchewan Women in Trades & Technology. She also works as a WITT facilitator at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology and represents women on the Board of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.
For further information about skilled trades, visit the website at: www.careersintrades.ca.