Hands-On Learning for Future Success

Supporting Women in the Trades
Written by Allison Dempsey

It’s no secret that post-secondary education is expensive, and that cost is expected to keep climbing in the coming years. Upon graduating high school in Canada, students looking to attend university can expect to shell out as much as $100,000 for a four-year degree plus housing, according to Embark Student Corp. In the United States, college and university costs are also on the rise, ranging anywhere from $10,000 USD for public in-state to $42,000 USD a year for private school, according to US News.

These numbers are not only daunting, but in many cases, simply out of reach for families whose children may not even know what career path they want to pursue. It’s an extremely expensive venture for no guarantee of solid, lucrative employment upon graduation.

This is exactly the dilemma 18-year-old Stella Thiessen of Ontario is facing. After graduating Grade 12 last June, while many of her friends had already applied to and been accepted to universities across the country, Stella continued working at her part-time job and pondered her future.

“I feel kind of left out, but I didn’t want to go to university just to go,” she says. “I don’t know what I want to do yet.”

Some of those friends, she adds, don’t know either, but simply applied to general four-year programs to get away from their parents and experience life on their own for the first time.

“It just seems like a waste to me—a really expensive waste,” she says. While Stella has always been interested in the arts—particularly drawing and painting—she also enjoys building things and loves being outside. “I’ve never liked sitting in a classroom for hours at a time. I get really bored.”

These are all attributes that lend themselves perfectly to a career in the trades, she has recently learned.

There are several ways to pursue higher education, and although attending college or university is the path many people follow, trade school is another very viable option. While colleges and universities provide the skills needed to start a profession and prepare students for the workforce, trade schools typically offer specialized training according to specific careers in the construction, plumbing, and electrical fields, and compared to traditional universities, they place a greater emphasis on skill-based learning. Their programs can be finished in eight months to two years and, according to the Skilled Trades College of Canada, tuition costs between $2,000 and $18,000 year, and that doesn’t take into account paid internships, scholarships and bursaries.

Along with the chance to start working sooner, trade schools provide hands-on training along with rigorous study tailored to certain jobs, and carry with them a higher percentage of not only finding employment, but keeping it, even through downturns in the economy.

“That’s one of the things that appeals to me a lot,” says Stella. “People always need electricians and plumbers, and houses and buildings are always being built or remodeled. I feel like it would provide a secure future for me.”

Fortunately, the government agrees. In order to boost the sagging labour force that could jeopardize its housing targets and train more youth and women to work in construction, CBC reported last year that the province of Ontario promises to invest $3.6 million in funding to assist 2,200 people in preparing for trade-related vocations.

More than 2,000 women and young people are projected to benefit from the three projects that will receive this financing as they “prepare for meaningful and well-paying careers in the construction trades,” overseen by the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario (PBCTCO), an umbrella organization consisting of 12 construction craft unions that collectively represent around 150,000 people.

The government estimates that in order to reach its infrastructure targets, which include building 1.5 million new homes by 2031, it will need to hire more than 100,000 additional trained tradespeople over the course of the next 10 years.

With research from construction lobby group BuildForce Canada indicating that 82,600 workers, or 18 percent of the industry’s workforce, are expected to retire in the next 10 years, this funding is not only beneficial but vital for hiring and training, as senior employees with decades of experience and specific talents make up a large portion of individuals who are anticipated to retire.

Targeting women in particular is also important: according to the province’s statement, women currently make up fewer than five percent of the construction workforce in Ontario.

The initial project’s main goal is to teach 700 tradeswomen in networking, leadership, health and safety, and communications so they can launch and begin to grow in their careers in the field. In order to mentor and encourage women to enter skilled professions, the organization will also build a “speaker’s bureau” that will be displayed at trade shows, job agencies, schools, and other venues.

The second project will give 1,500 people access to online training materials and technologies that will help those interested in pursuing careers in skilled trades acquire necessary skills and locate apprenticeship possibilities. Additionally, it will assist students in locating apprenticeship programs and put them in touch with nearby companies. The third project, dubbed the “Tomorrow’s Trades” program, is an ongoing initiative managed by the PBCTCO that, according to the province, will give 60 Grade 12 students in Ottawa and London access to high-profile construction projects, training, and learning opportunities. Prioritizing young people who are at risk, the program has previously operated in Sudbury, Toronto, Hamilton, and other areas of the province.

The province recently increased the number of apprentice registrations by 24 percent over the prior year, with approximately 30 percent of those registrations coming from women. Currently, there are more than 91,000 apprentices in Ontario, with tens of thousands of them working in the construction industry.

The province has also implemented women-only restrooms and increased the number of site inspectors in an effort to enhance the health and safety of construction sites. In order to help young people enter the trades where they are needed, the initiative will also, according to the release, build a forecasting tool that will project the number of skilled trades personnel needed for all significant construction and maintenance projects across Ontario.

Of course, the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC) has long staunchly supported women in the trades via its own bursaries. CAWIC hosts a number of fundraising events each year, with a portion of the earnings going toward its bursary fund. It approaches several Canadian post-secondary institutions that provide diploma or degree programs in construction-related fields to inform students about the program, which helps the organization find possible applicants for bursaries which range from $1,000 to $2,000.

Outside of Ontario, the Canadian government is providing up to $43.5 million over four years starting in 2023-2024 under the Women in Skilled Trades Initiative to support projects that seek to attract and retain female apprentices in 39 eligible Red Seal trades, which are primarily found in the manufacturing and construction sectors, according to Employment and Social Development Canada, and there are similar initiatives found in the United States as well. The U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics states that just 3.9 percent of workers in the construction industry identify as female. However, different research on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Design and Construction” conducted by Dodge Construction Network reveals that only two percent of smaller firms report having defined guidelines for promoting diversity.

The U.S. Department of Labour (DOL) has also launched a number of new programs with the goal of changing such figures, according to US Glass. These programs include up to 14 grants and a $5 million fund intended to encourage and support access to registered apprenticeship programs. Grants focus on sectors like manufacturing and construction where women are currently underrepresented. Additionally, the DOL announced four awards of up to $1 million to address and prevent gender-based violence and harassment against vulnerable and marginalized women workers.

All of these initiatives have encouraged Stella—and hopefully many other women, both young and older either looking to start a career or make a switch—to seriously consider pursuing training in the trades.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands, so I think I would really enjoy it,” she says. “I won’t have to be in a classroom for four years, and I’d have a good job that will help me support myself in the future.”



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