By Robert Smol
Special to the Toronto Sun
Michelle Abrams, 35, left her job as a health care aid to upgrade her education and expand her opportunities -- as an electrician.
Abrams is part of a growing number of women who are entering skilled trades -- boilermaker, electrician and plumber -- that are traditionally dominated by men.
"This is the most (women) I've seen in these particular trades since I started working here two years ago" says Kristyna MacDonald, apprenticeship liaison at the School of Applied Technology at Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning.
Anybody who has had their car repaired, or their plumbing fixed knows that someone is being paid handsomely for doing the job.
Many trades are in high demand and, according to Mike Rees, program co-ordinator for electrical apprentices at the School of Applied
Technology, students in the skilled trades usually earn from $18 to $27 an hour during the work phase of their training.
Rees says it is not uncommon for qualified tradespeople to bring in $70,000 to $100,000 a year.
But it is more than the salary that makes the skilled trades attractive.
"As soon as I am a journeyperson I can own my own business, or I can continue to work as a journeyperson, or I can go on to be a teacher or inspector -- there are lots of places to go," says Abrams.
Rosa De Oliveira, 38, a business grad from DeVry Institute, left her job at U.P.S. and is now a fourth-year plumber apprentice. She says the skilled trades are an excellent option for women who, like her, are single parents.
"If you want to get ahead and help your kids out and give them a better future then you need to make what the man was bringing home, and the only way you are going to get that is by getting into a man's industry," says De Oliveira.
Unlike most college and university programs, apprentices need to first find an employer who is willing to provide the on-the-job training needed to qualify.
And the first and primary proving ground for an apprentice is in the workplace. In most cases the jobs are physically demanding. Heavy lifting, heights, extreme heat and cold and crawling through confined spaces can all be a necessary part of what a skilled tradesperson has to contend with.
Humber's women apprentices caution others to be ready to tolerate both the physical demands of the job as well as the language and culture of the workplace if they want to excel in the trades.
"If you go in there expecting them to help you because you are a woman, because you are new on the job, you've got a lot of problems, you are starting on the wrong foot,"says Shelby Hall, 48, a fourth-year boilermaker.
"As a woman you are so visible when you get out there," says Hall. "If you screw up, they write off everyone who follows you."
Yet for Humber's female apprentices, the benefits and rewards of the skilled trades far outweigh the challenges.
Anyone interested in getting started in the skilled trades can contact Kristyna MacDonald with the School of Applied Technology at 416-675-6622 ext 4459 or visit www.humber.ca
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