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Diversifying Canada's Skilled Trades

Q&A with Jamie McMillian on Her Journey as a Women in Skilled Trades

Jamie McMillan Headshot

Jamie McMillian

Journeyman Ironworker and Founder, KickAss Careers

Mediaplanet sat down with Jamie McMillian, a Journeyman Ironworker and advocate for skilled trades, to talk about her journey as a woman in a male-dominated industry.


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What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a woman in the skilled trades?

When I began working in the industry 20 years ago, I was on a mission to prove I could do my job just as well as any other worker. However, validation was important to me, so occasionally — like many women in trades — I would work much harder to get the “attaboy” than necessary. 

Unfortunately, there’s still a looming shadow of bias when it comes to equity in construction. Not everyone is accepting of women in the workplace, regardless of how well you can do your job. Over time it can become difficult to deal with antagonistic personalities, questionable behaviours, and rumours. With time I’ve learned to accept that some people will never change, so adaptability is important. Work is a large part of our life, and it’s important that we enjoy what we do. I’ve learned how to create healthy boundaries and ignore the background noise while doing my job to the best of my ability. Rather than allowing naysayers to have a negative impact on my workday, I choose to use their invalidation as motivation to do my job better and prove them wrong.

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What are some of your favourite things about being a woman in the skilled trades? 

I take great pride in being a skilled trades professional because I love working with my hands. I enjoy working hard for my money while building the structures that decorate our countryside, provide housing, employment and support our economy. In addition, I get to brag to my friends and family when I point out places I’ve worked or things I’ve built. It’s empowering and rewarding, especially when you get to tell stories about the experiences and learning curves you faced while building those places.  

As someone who struggled with academia, hands-on education and paid training through an apprenticeship also have their own bragging rights. I don’t have post-secondary education loan debt because my employer and the government provided tool grants and paid training, including excellent pension and benefits. Without debt, it’s been much easier to get ahead and start living the life of my dreams with a certification that allows me to work anywhere in the world.

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How has skilled trades impacted your life outside of the workplace?

In high school, I excelled in tech classes, so I’ve always had a knack for building and construction. Fortunately, the transferable skills were a huge asset when I found my way into the Ironworkers union in 2002, eight years after years of uncertainty about a lifelong career choice.  

The biggest impact skilled trades have had on my life is the ability to have a sustainable life and save money. The transferable, practical skills I’ve developed along the way help in all aspects of my life professionally and personally. I can do my own auto repairs or renovate my own home, and I’m always so proud to use my own knowledge and experience to help others. 

My most memorable moment was when I impressed my father with some great suggestions a few years ago when he was trying to use hydraulics to lift and transfer a houseboat from a muddy field to a trailer. Proud daughter moment.

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With inclusive language being a hot topic these days, what changes would you like to see in regard to terminology? 

Before I get started, I would like to express my personal opinion. With 100 per cent certainty, a large percentage of women would agree. 

My certificate of qualification states that I’m a Journeyman Ironworker. 

I’m very proud of my accomplishments and see it as a status I worked hard for. It has nothing to do with my gender. 

Many of us love working with our hands, building and maintaining infrastructure all around the world. We invest our heart and soul into completing our practical hours on the tools learning while earning with periodic blocks of theory (theory is not easy for some of us). It takes hard work, perseverance, and determination to be part of the 4 per cent of women representing the skilled labour workforce. In my experience, I would estimate that 80 per cent of women in trades embrace the word Journeyman. Achieving such a credential is not an easy pathway, but for those of us who take the road less travelled, we’re damn proud to call ourselves Journeyman regardless of how we identify. 

We understand the need for more inclusive language. We will happily support the changes deemed necessary; however, in the meantime, we want others to understand that terminology should never discourage anyone from pursuing a pathway into a future career they will love.

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What would you do differently if you could go back in time and have a do-over? 

As much as knowledge could have changed my life drastically, I believe everything happens as it should. My path was a convoluted journey of ups and downs, but it made me the strong and resilient person l am today.

Sure, I could have taken more tech classes in high school, learned more about post-secondary technical programs, explored apprenticeship opportunities, and never let anyone make me believe that careers should be defined by gender. It might have propelled me into success much quicker, but the impact might have had a very different effect on my life. 

An alternative outcome might not have opened the doors of opportunity for me to share my story of epic failures, difficult life lessons, and how skilled trades saved my life with others. Due to my own trial and error, I’ve shared my story with hundreds of thousands of students, parents, educators, and employers to help engage, educate, and encourage future generations to consider a career in skilled trades and technology. Through my company, KickAss Careers of authentic apprentices and skilled trades professionals, we’re on a mission to recruit a future workforce of young hands willing to build and maintain the world of tomorrow. We have made it our priority to ensure that we do our part to fill the labour shortage gap.

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