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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

ONTARIO AT WORK - Special Report

Women make the grade in the trades

By Linda White
Special to The Toronto Sun

When Renee Martel dropped out of college, she was back at square one, looking for a career that would motivate and interest her. Discouraged by the low-paying jobs she was landing, she finally decided to try her hand at a skilled trade.

"I had been working here and there, but I wasn't making enough money," says the Toronto resident. "My brothers are electricians and had tried to convince me for years to join the trade ... I finally decided to do it."
"Every day is a test. It's hard work, but I love my job," says second-year millwright apprentice Jackie Trudel, who's working at the Toronto Lester B. Pearson International Airport.

She joined the Joint Apprenticeship Council in Toronto, which refers people to union halls seeking apprentices. She has completed a wiring project at the University of Toronto and installed video and card access security systems at hospitals and police stations.

A second year apprentice, Martel is now working on a project for the Toronto Works and Emergency Services department, installing sensors designed to increase energy efficiency by activating and turning off heating and lighting. "I like the physical work," says Martel, 25. "I like sweating and I like getting paid well to work. You get to think...It's great work."

Admittedly, working in a male-dominated trade has had its challenges.

"I get discouraged here and there, but I give myself a pep talk," Martel says. "There is some physical work that can be a challenge for women, but it isn't impossible. I've proven to myself that I can do it."

She would like to see more women enter the trades. "Many people come up to me and say they've never seen a female electrician before."

That's something Jay Peterson, business manager of the Toronto Central Ontario Building & Construction Trades Council, would like to change. "Just 1% to 2% of skilled labourers are women," he estimates.

"We're trying to promote women in the skilled trades. There are opportunities there," Peterson says. "There's no reason why women can't enjoy the benefits, pay and satisfaction that comes with a skilled trade."

A sheet metal worker for 20 years, Peterson likes the satisfaction that comes with skilled trades. "You drive by and look at a building you worked on and know you were involved in it."

At the same time, skilled trades offer an opportunity to earn an enviable salary. "There's a lot of independence that comes along with good pay and benefits," Peterson says.

Some trades, such as bricklaying and formwork, are more physically demanding than others. But experience in a trade can open the door to other opportunities, including sales, estimating, managing projects and teaching, Peterson notes.

For Jackie Trudel, a second year millwright apprentice, the physical aspect of the job offers the challenge she had been looking for. She spent a year at college before planning to transfer to university with thoughts of becoming a teacher.

But a summer job at Stelco Hamilton, a steel making and processing complex, changed the course her career path.

"I got to do all these cool things I never thought I'd ever do," says the 22-year-old Hamilton resident.

She worked on the line in one of the mills, banding coils of steel. By summer's end, she was operating equipment that fed the coils to line workers. Encouraged by family members in the trade, Trudel signed on as an apprentice with Hamilton Local 1916 Millwright Union. "Every day is a test. It's hard work, but I love my job," she says.

Trudel worked at several manufacturing plants during routine shutdowns, repairing conveyors and completing other maintenance.

She is now working on construction of the new terminal at the Toronto Lester B. Pearson International Airport, installing a baggage conveyor system. The job entails forklift driving, installing conveyors and levelling conveyor beds. "It's a challenge," Trudel says. "There is a lot of manual labour. I'm not as physically strong as the guys, but I can manage."

Just as she had to prove to herself that she was up for the challenge of working in a trade, Trudel has proven herself to many of her male counterparts, particularly more senior members of the crew.

"The older guys were a little uncomfortable at first," Trudel says, "but once they saw my work ethic and commitment, they've made me feel welcome."

(Linda White ( is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.)

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