Program Director, The Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen (OBCT)
Director of Occupational Services, Provincial Building & Construction Trades Council of Ontario (PBCTCO)
Program Manager, Construction Training & Apprenticeship Ontario (CTAO)
A career in the skilled trades offers many opportunities and benefits for both men and women, and health and safety are always a priority
Many Canadians have preconceived ideas about careers in the skilled trades that are frankly out of date. Do you think, for example, that working in the trades is “beneath” white collar work or that pursuing a university education is always preferable to a trade apprenticeship? Or do you imagine that a career in the trades isn’t creative or intellectually stimulating? How about that working with your hands isn’t desirable or that you couldn’t possibly pursue a career in construction while also pursuing your passion?
The women pursuing skilled trade careers would beg to differ. And with exceptional compensation, excellent opportunities for advancement, and a workplace culture that’s steadily improving, the trades clearly have a lot to offer.
Understanding the “union effect”
A safe work environment is one of the base requirements for satisfying work, and Ontario’s various building trades unions place a huge amount of emphasis on workers’ safety.
“Evidence shows that the unionized construction sector is safer,” says Carmine Tiano, Director of Occupational Services, Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario (PBCTCO), an umbrella organization of 13 affiliated construction craft unions that acts as the collective voice of Ontario construction workers. “The Institute for Work and Health published a study on the effect of unionization on the incidence of workers’ compensation claims and found that union jobs were 23 percent safer when it comes to lost-time claims related to injuries. This is known as the ‘union effect.’”
Thanks to trade unions’ leadership and structured approach to ongoing, job-specific training, tradespeople are assured a safe working environment.
The PBCTCO is also undertaking various projects and initiatives designed to support its workers, including women in the trades, those struggling with mental health challenges, and anyone dealing with substance use issues.
The Ontario Building and Construction Tradeswomen (OBCT) was established by the PBCTCO to support, retain, and recruit women into skilled trade apprenticeships and careers. “We’re a committee of over 700 tradeswomen from across the province,” says Kayla Bailey, Program Director, OBCT. “We represent every trade, every sector, and every level of representation.”
The OBCT supports tradeswomen through a one-on-one mentorship program, as well as peer support and education on topics like leadership, mental health, substance use, and opioid poisoning emergency training. “As a tradeswoman, you’re often the only woman on a job site,” says Bailey. “That can be very isolating, especially when you’re facing challenges. The OBCT provides a much-needed support network.”
Promoting ongoing education
Construction Training and Apprenticeship Ontario (CTAO), meanwhile, provides a one-stop shop of educational tools and materials for applicants pursuing pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship opportunities in the skilled trades. “We build awareness of skilled trade careers with the intention of recruiting job-seekers into quality registered apprenticeship agreements with trades unions,” says Gillian Olohan, Program Manager, CTAO. “We also provide access to situational, job-specific education and training that’s vetted through industry partners.”
“CTAO is so important because it connects people to topics they may not have realized were so powerful,” says Bailey. “For example, when I was in high school, I didn’t connect with the curriculum. I didn’t see the real-world application of math and theorems. But when I got into the trades, I began to love math. I suddenly understood how to use it and how it was going to make my job easier.”
A cultural shift
Tradeswomen often experience challenges in the industry, but they’re quick to point out their love for the work and that the construction industry is undergoing a cultural shift.
“It’s not perfect, but the days of an exclusively homogenized workforce are over,” says Bailey. “I think the industry is really starting to understand that having a workforce that’s mostly middle-aged white males isn’t sustainable or healthy, and it’s not what’s best for the project. It’s valuable to have a diverse workforce because it brings so many different perspectives.”
Bailey — a Journeyperson Steamfitter and Apprentice Welder — and Olohan — a Master Electrician — have both experienced sexism on the job, but they both note that it’s infrequent. They also credit their careers in the trades with growing their confidence and helping them to find material success and job satisfaction.
“Working in the trades has done great things for me in terms of my independence and confidence,” says Olohan.
A valuable post-secondary pathway
Bailey and Olohan both point to skilled trade apprenticeships as an excellent opportunity for women looking to find a fulfilling and well-compensated career with ample opportunity for advancement.
“Skilled trade apprenticeships are a valuable post-secondary pathway,” says Olohan. “The trades allow people to learn in a hands-on manner and get paid while doing so, so you’re not going into debt learning your new career.”
“Skilled trades are essential, in demand, and well-compensated, especially if you’re in the unionized sector,” adds Bailey. “And as a woman, when you’re in a union, there’s no pay gap. Every brother and every sister is getting paid the same wage. Also, there’s really no substitute for the satisfaction and sense of ownership that comes from helping to build and craft your community every day. That’s my favourite part of the trades.”
If you’re considering a trade apprenticeship, Olohan and Bailey share the same advice: “Just jump in!”