CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Man's work?

By Aunie Edwards
Special to the Toronto Sun

Local 46, a union of 5,800 plumbers, steamfitters and welders, is a brotherhood of skilled, like-minded tradesmen committed to safe and robust growth in Toronto.
Third-year steamfitter and second-year welder apprentice Courtney Chard is loving every minute of her macho career path.

To be more precise, the number of "brothers" is actually closer to 5,785 -- Local 46 boasts about 15 "sisters."

Fifteen is an interesting number -- one wonders for instance, how three overwhelmingly male professions can still exist in our "gender-enlightened" society.

Or does fascination stem from the fact that 15 women actually want to work in such male dominated fields? This writer confesses to an un-feminist mental gasp at the concept of a female steamfitter.

A shameful reaction, it's true, but I hadn't met Courtney Chard, third-year steamfitter and second-year welder apprentice -- excelling in both skills and loving every minute of her macho career path.

To understand this woman, a few stereotypes should be dispensed with post haste. Chard is not masculine, she weighs in at model proportions, she is not a bully and she is not gay.

"My career choice gets the full range of response," laughs Chard. "Overall, the guys are great and most reactions are no more than a second glance. But sometimes I get intrusive questions -- that's when I have to be 'hammer-over-the-head' blunt, just to end the rudeness early on."

Chard will certify as a second-generation welder and one of the first to apprentice in the newly designated welding trade in Ontario.

"Courtney is seeking multi-disciplinary skills," says Joe Bowdring, director of training for the Joint Training and Apprenticeship Committee of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Toronto. "She signed up for a steamfitter apprenticeship and has taken on welding as a secondary skill -- she's doing extremely well in both disciplines."

"Any extra skill that you bring to the job is helpful," says Chard. "And the welding opportunity is there -- when I signed a contract with the union, I began paying dues and any trade-related courses that I want to take at Local 46 are free of charge."

The training is top-notch. Union and contractors work together to bring current, required skills to the apprenticeships. Each trade involves basic, intermediate and advanced level training before journeyperson status is attainable.

"Once you license as a journeyperson, it's sink or swim," Bowdring says. "And that's where the trades themselves are great equalizers: if you can't do the work, or don't have the work ethic -- male or female -- you won't get the jobs. Conversely, the right skills and work ethic will humble even the meanest, toughest tradesman out there."

Clearly Chard has done her share of humbling. With expert training at Local 46 and George Brown College, she brings enthusiasm and skill to every worksite.

"I'm currently working for Western Mechanical who's contracting a re-tooling job -- basically we're upgrading an old system," Chard says. "The work is always different, I'm always using new materials and when I drive past a site, I can say, 'yeah, I helped get that building up and running'. It's a great feeling."

Steamfitters are commissioned with making brackets, installing pipe, installing pumps -- in co-operation with other trades. Steamfitter jobs include placing medical gas systems in hospitals, developing safe systems in nuclear plants and food production plants -- important work with no room for error and a need to stay current in skills technology.

In keeping with technological progress, Bowdring predicts that the role of women in the trades will only increase with time.

No complaints

"Technology is making the heavy work lighter and our demographics are dictating a high demand for skilled trades, so gender will steadily become less of an issue," Bowdring says. "Having said that, I've been seeing workers sent to job sites for 22 years and I've never had a contractor complain about a female tradesperson."

This is not to say that issues don't arise. "When classes begin we tell our students that discriminatory behaviour on any grounds, will feel the full weight of our system," Bowdring says. "We can't control everything, but the industry is clear that discrimination will not be tolerated."
Just the facts
United Association Local 46 Plumbers and Steamfitters Union is located in Toronto at: 936 Warden Ave., Scarborough, Ont., M1L 4C6
  • A steamfitter assembles, installs, maintains and/or repairs heating systems, cooling systems, process piping or industrial systems.
  • The steamfitter installs piping for any process and understands design drawings and installation diagrams for piping and related appliances.
  • A steamfitter apprentice must have a minimum Grade 12 with math and English.
  • To maintain a local 46 apprenticeship, the candidate must take a minimum of 50 hours per year for each of the five years of the apprenticeship.
  • For more information, contact Local 46 Joint Training and Apprenticeship Committee at 416-759-9352 or visit

  • Being a woman in a "man's trade" does have drawbacks, some real and some perceived. "A woman has to think about family planning in a steamfitter role," Chard says. "The work is physical and you take too many hits for it to be safe if you're pregnant -- the fumes from some of the jobs are also not conducive to a safe environment for pregnancy."

    Another perception, that a woman can't handle the weight of the pipes, is not a valid one. "It's true that some days involve heavy lifting and because I'm not big, I have to be smart about it," Chard says. "But we use forklifts, come-alongs, small cranes or chain fall systems for most heavy pipes -- a plumber probably does more heavy lifting."

    The steamfitter apprenticeship takes about five years to complete, while welding is a three-year commitment. Chard is well on her way to achieving both certifications with top marks. Her future is stable, lucrative and wide open. Says Chard, "I'll have tremendous travel opportunities, I can become an inspector, a foreman, an entrepreneur -- my options are endless."

    It's a bright future that makes the lowly number of 15 still more intriguing. But people like Chard are paving the way for greater participation by like-minded women in the skilled trades.

    "Courtney and her female counterparts are pioneers," Bowdring says. "All my female apprentices are bright, enthusiastic and skilled -- shining examples of what an apprentice should be and their success and acceptance will only make it easier for women to follow in their footsteps."

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