Jenny Robbins spent nearly a decade working as a cashier, waitress, bartender and cook.
This year, the 27-year-old’s career path took an abrupt turn.
“I’m a single mom, and I needed something to move forward with my future,” said Robbins, who’s now training to become an electrician.
Alicia McWade and Leagh Wilson are also pursuing trades tickets: McWade in plumbing and Wilson in sheet metal fabrication. All three women work at Bruin’s Plumbing and Heating in Red Deer.
“It wasn’t even a route I was thinking about,” said the 23-year-old McWade, who previously worked at a liquor store.
Like Robbins, she wanted a vocation with better income and improved job security.
Ryan Hawley, safety officer at Bruin’s, said stories like Robbins’ and McWade’s are becoming increasingly common.
“It’s normal now to see women in all kinds of trades on a commercial site.”
That’s good news, he said, because tradespeople are expected to become increasingly scarce as Alberta’s economy recovers. Females have previously been badly underrepresented among such workers.
Leanne Colby, corporate human resources manager at Red Deer-based Studon Electric and Controls, tells a similar story.
“It’s still a man’s world, but we’re trying to change that.”
Like Bruin’s, Studon has hired a number of women into trades-related positions.
“It has been a little tougher for us,” said Colby, explaining that her company does much of its work out of town and must deal with issues like the need for segregated accommodations.
That said, she added, Studon’s commitment to a mixed workforce has created very few problems.
Hawley and Colby credit the increasing number of local women joining the trades to Academic Express Adult Education and Training, which offers a program called Women in the Trades.
Donna Hall, administrator with Academic Express, said the impetus for the program arose several years ago when Alberta began suffering from a shortage of tradespeople.
“We said, ‘Why not go the extra mile and get women in that field?’”
Working with Alberta Employment and Immigration, and industry, Academic Express developed a program that provides upgrading in math, science and English; training in areas like first aid, WHMIS, construction safety training system and personal protection equipment; work experience; and help in a variety of other areas. It also helps raise awareness of the opportunities that exist in the trades, and connects prospective workers with employers.
“It was extremely helpful,” said McWade of Women in the Trades. “I’d never done anything trade-related.”
Robbins had previously pondered a career in the trades, but was hesitant to take action on her own.
“I’d never really dealt with tools or anything like that before.
“This was a way for me to get my foot in the door. I wouldn’t have done it without them.”
Not only does the program prepare students for their trades entrance exams, said Hawley, it familiarizes them with their chosen industries so they’re less likely to drop out after starting work.
Job sites are becoming increasingly receptive to female tradespeople, confirmed Hall, who hears this from former students.
She praises companies like Bruin’s and Studon for hiring Women in the Trades graduates, but also for offering tours, doing presentations and providing job-shadowing and work experience opportunities.
That’s helping make a life-long difference for many women.
“It can provide an excellent quality of life, especially for some of the women who come from service industry work and now are successfully employed.”
“It’s completely changed my life.”