Power Tools

The construction industry needs more tradeswomen. These organizations are working to attract them, train them — and keep them.

Power Tools - Douglas Magazine Aug/Sept 2023
Camosun College has taken a lead role in attracting women like Emma Reid into construction, and offers programs in 12 trades, leading toward Red Seal certification. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Karen Dearlove would love it if the workers on a construction site were divided 50/50 between men and women. But for now, the executive director for the BC Centre for Women in the Trades would be happy with a 10/90 split, which would be double what it is today. After all, she points out, “The industry and companies won’t be competitive if they don’t address inclusivity.” 

Think of the trades — electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders, pipefitters and the like — and you likely think of men doing what has traditionally been seen as backbreaking work. But now, as British Columbia’s growing population needs more housing and commercial buildings, the province also needs more skilled trades, and that means more women. In fact, the BC Construction Association (BCCA) predicts that 6,000 construction jobs will be unfilled by 2032, due to labour shortages and retirements.

“We need everyone on deck,” says Rory Kulmala, CEO at the Vancouver Island Construction Association (VICA). “We need women to work in the industry. We need skilled trades.”

The trades offer plenty of advantages: well-paying work, job security and interesting projects big and small. And, says Jessica Sidhu, a project manager with Kinetic Construction, “You’re not stuck at a desk. There are a lot of growth opportunities. You don’t have to go to school for a long time and you can learn on the job.”

But there still aren’t enough women applying, and even fewer women staying on the job. Why not? It really comes down to just one thing: “Construction is still a difficult place for women,” Dearlove says. That’s why a growing number of people in the industry are trying to build a more inclusive future on the job site. 

Set Up to Excel

Naomi Reinhart was working as an esthetician and wellness practitioner in 2015 when she embarked on a major home renovation. As she collaborated with the trades workers, she drew on her early years, when her father taught carpentry at a Saskatoon high school and was always working on projects at home. “I had an understanding and respect of the skills, the dedication, the creativity,” Reinhart says.

As she got deeper into managing her own home reno, the planning, execution and hands-on tasks made the work very appealing. After her project was finished, she went to work for her contractor while completing project management courses and training via VICA.

Then, during COVID-19, while Reinhart took a break from work to homeschool her children and complete personal projects, she came across Green Island Builders. By March 2021, she had applied to work with the Greater Victoria company and was soon hired as a project manager. “Green Island has a safe environment for female workers,” Reinhart says. “It’s a blend of women and men. We all have valuable contributions. And Martin is very innovative.”

“Martin” is Martin Scaia, director of Green Island Builders. His evolution within the industry was driven by his early days, working among men who made distasteful and insulting comments about people they encountered. “It made me sick,” Scaia says. 

Not long after starting Green Island, he hired his first female carpenter. Today, with a staff of about 24, Green Island has a 50/50 split between the sexes. “When you have a female carpenter, it makes it easier to hire another,” Scaia says. He believes it’s important for women to see themselves working successfully and happily at a trade that should never be undervalued. “Working with your hands is a critical skill. A lot of people can’t do it,” he says.

Scaia is also aware of female Red Seals (who have successfully completed four years of training and apprenticeships) who enter poisonous work environments and eventually quit due to harassment and outsize expectations. In fact, the BCCA estimates that after their first year on the job, half of B.C. tradeswomen quit.

“What I’ve decided to do is hire first-year apprentices and help them through the entire Red Seal program,” Scaia says. He has also developed a code of conduct for his staff and clients that outlines expected behaviour. “I want to know I’m sending them into a healthy environment.” 

Most of all, he wants the women to excel. “I want this company to be a leader. I want to elevate the industry,” he says. “The trades have a bad rap and for good reason. There’s all kinds of issues.”

Power Tools - Douglas Magazine Aug/Sept 2023
Some of the craftswomen of Green Island Builders, from left: Wendy Taylor, design and development director; Sara Gallinger, apprentice; Caitlyn Bruce, people and cultural co-ordinator; Jess Bones, apprentice; Alison Whelan, apprentice; Naomi Reinhart, project manager; Jessica Jackman, health and safety co-ordinator. Missing: Etta Hall, carpenter. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Nipped in the Bud

Dearlove can elaborate on those issues. Sexist jokes, bullying and inappropriate touching still happen at worksites. Stalking happens. So do incidents of sexual assault. Then there’s the constant surveillance of female workers due to the belief they cannot handle the job. Male co-workers are more critical of their female peers. “There is a spectrum. What we want is to nip it in the bud, don’t let it escalate,” she says.

Kulmala, who has been CEO at VICA since 2017, admits that progress has been slow when it comes to welcoming female workers. “We’re not making headway. In some respects we’re going backward,” he says.

For instance, he notes, worksites need to accommodate women better. Women not only need to feel safe and valued, but since so many are the primary caregivers for their families, they have to be able to access childcare, drop off or pick up children at school, or stay home with sick kids or ailing parents. (Indeed, these accommodations would be beneficial for all workers.)

Kulmala admits it will take time to embed women in the industry because changing an ingrained workplace culture is a slow process. Still, his wish is for women to represent 25 per cent of workers at construction sites.

To help reach that benchmark, VICA established its Women in Construction group in 2013. Today, WiC provides informal networking, support and career development to roughly 550 members in Greater Victoria and Nanaimo. 

Sidhu is a longtime member and past chair of WiC, and was recently appointed to the Canadian Construction Association’s National Advisory Council. She entered the industry at 17, when she took a youth trades program that gave her a jump-start on college. The only female in the class of 20, she later studied carpentry and earned a diploma in Architectural and Building Technology at the B.C. Institute of Technology. 

Today at Kinetic, she tackles projects big and small, ensuring contracts are in place for sub-contractors, organizing schedules and making sure supplies and workers are on site. Her goal is to be an executive at a construction company within a decade, which will go toward resolving one major issue she sees with the industry: a lack of women in leadership positions.  

Still, she agrees that the deep-rooted workplace culture is difficult to uproot. “The challenges a decade ago are still challenges,” she says. 

That’s where institutions like Camosun College, long a noted training ground for the trades, come in.

Training for the Future

An “impromptu decision” took Hanna Thomas-Hofmann from running a hotel front desk to fixing hotel bathrooms. She had been working as a night auditor/concierge at the Fairmont Empress, but was laid off as COVID-19 lingered. Thomas-Hofmann got antsy waiting for things to reopen. That’s when she discovered Camosun College’s Women in Trades Training program and decided to plumb the depths of a trade even though, she says, “I never grew up around tools.” 

Power Tools - Douglas Magazine Aug/Sept 2023
Camosun’s programs combine classroom training with real-world experience on job sites. Rebecca Bos is studying plumbing and pipe trades. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Camosun College has been offering the 12-week WITT program since 2010. It has introduced dozens of women to different trades, offering hands-on learning, safety training and mentorship. Many students qualify for bursaries or sponsorships. “It’s a tremendous program. It allows women to try different paths,” says Heather Solomonson, co-ordinator of the program.

Once a woman completes WITT, she can move on to apprentice training at Camosun, where 12 trades with Red Seal endorsement are offered. Students attend classes for four to 10 weeks each year of the four-year program, spending the remaining weeks on the job as an apprentice and earning a solid wage. 

Another option is the foundation programs, where classes to prepare students for further training run from 24 to 30 weeks. Solomonson admits challenges do remain for female students, but adds that single dads working in the trades also face obstacles. She’s aware that employers are starting to consider how they can make worksites more family friendly. 

“A huge amount of people are looking to retire and construction continues to boom. There’s a labour shortage. Employers have to look at barriers and make workplaces a positive place to work,” Solomonson says.

Sexism does exist, says Thomas-Hofmann, but she attributes it mostly to the different communication styles between men and women. “We want more details. Guys don’t say much,” she says. 

Since discovering WITT, she has graduated from the Plumbing and Pipe Trades Foundation Program and is working as an apprentice at RedBlue Heating and Cooling. And she’s now earning as much as she did at the Empress. 

She was ready for a career change, but along the way made discoveries about herself. Being able to cut and build, take on diverse jobs and produce something tangible are positive aspects of her new vocation. “I much prefer using my hands than working at a computer, and you don’t have to put on a face for the public. You don’t have to be prim and proper,” she says. “And it’s more fun to play with tools.” 

Her simple advice to a woman considering a trades career? “Don’t be afraid to try something new!”

Code of Conduct

To attract women, Dearlove says businesses need to consider three key areas: recruitment, retention and advancement. 

Companies should be encouraged to hire female apprentices and seriously commit to their training. Those apprentices will eventually become valuable Red Seal tradespeople. To retain women, the long-standing noxious work culture has to be decontaminated. And because women are often caregivers, allowances have to be made for their dual roles. And employers with biases need to be educated.

One key request from the B.C. Centre for Women in the Trades is to make anti-bullying and harassment training mandatory at all apprenticeship programs. The provincial government has made attempts to address the problem with initiatives such as the Builders Code, a code of conduct for construction workers.

The centre was created in 2018 as a way to increase the five per cent of tradespeople who are women to 50, 25, even 10 per cent of the workforce. Dearlove concedes it will take time. But one day, she hopes to reach her goal: “to work myself out of a job.”