By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Over the past few decades, women have made great strides in the workforce, earning higher wages and receiving more opportunities, although in some occupations, issues still remain.
In particular, some will say the skilled trades sector has been lagging behind in modernizing its workforce.
The Durham Catholic District School Board recently held an information event for girls in Grades 7 to 10 with the goal of promoting a career in the trades and apprenticeships as viable options after secondary school.
Andrea Ellsworth, pathways coordinator for the board, says the perception that skilled trades jobs are only suitable for men is something that remains today.
“When we look at the percentage of workers in traditional and non-traditional trades, it is heavily male – in some trades, it may be women make up one per cent of the workforce,” Ellsworth told The Oshawa Express. “We want to dispel the myth that trades are not for students who get good grades and for women.”
“The reality is these careers require individuals with strong foundations in reading, math and science. Skilled trades require dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, and creativity. These are qualities both women and men have,” Ellsworth added.
Ellsworth noted that while people who pursue apprenticeships and work in the skilled trades often have excellent employment outcomes, high-earning potential and a high-level of job satisfaction, it is still the path that the fewest students consider after secondary school.
The board is hoping to increase interest by promoting the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), a school-to-work program that introduces students to apprenticeship occupations starting in Grade 11 or Grade 12 through co-operative education.
Jamie McMillan has been working as an ironworker and boilermaker for more than a decade.
While she’s not on the job site, she is travelling across the country promoting careers in the skilled trades.
However, as McMillan explained to those in attendance, the path to her current career was a much longer and complicated one than many others face.
The Timmins native admits that for a long time she was unsure what her career choice would be.
“It’s hard to believe how many times my dream has changed. I’ve changed it over, over, and over,” McMillan said. “I’ve jumped all over the map and never really knew what I wanted to do.”
After dropping out of high school a few credits short of a Grade 12 diploma, McMillan worked a number of jobs and eventually left home to live on her own.
One day, she received a phone call from her mother.
“She said ‘your dad and I think you are a disappointment to the family'”.
McMillan went on to say her mother told her they were “embarrassed” to talk about her with family members.
“Can you please do something with your life,” her mother added.
After working as a PSW and bartender, McMillan found herself living in Hamilton, barely making ends meet.
“I hated my life. All of a sudden I hit a wall,” she recalls. “I didn’t like going to work and when the phone was ringing, I dreaded answering it.”
A chance meeting would change this unhappy portion of her life.
While walking to get groceries one day, McMillan was stopped by a woman who claimed to know her.
“She was my high school nemesis,” she reflected amusingly, however past transgressions were forgotten that day.
“She had moved to Hamilton years earlier and she ended up getting an apprenticeship to become an ironworker. She started telling me about it, and all my bells and whistles starting going off.”
Now a decade later, McMillan says she is now in a career she absolutely loves.
“You have to love what you do. You’re going to spend about a third of your life working. You don’t want to come home miserable after work. Because then you’re going to be miserable with your friends, miserable with your family, and you’re probably not going to sleep because you are dreading getting up in the morning.”
Although she is extremely happy, McMillan admitted she is often second-guessed on the job because of her gender, but she won’t let it stop her from achieving her goals.
“Is there discrimination, sexism…yes, there is. But where isn’t there? It doesn’t matter where you work in life. Don’t think that construction is this big bad place with challenges and barriers because you’re going to get that everywhere.”
McMillan says when she is challenged on her gender she lets her skills do the talking.
“If someone says I can’t do something because I’m a girl, I’m going to do it two times better than [them],” she says.
While the majority of students will attend post-secondary studies after graduation, many of them end up heavily in debt just when they are starting out in life, something McMillan questions.
“People in the skilled trades, by the time they are 30, they have a paid off house. They have a paid off truck. You can have all of these great things.”
For her, a career in the trades offers great opportunities for career advancement and to see the world.
“Once you’ve got a skilled trades ticket, you can take that anywhere.”
For more information on the OYAP program, visit oyap.com.