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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

ONTARIO@WORK

Women in hard hats changing the trades

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun


Building your own dream home: it's a fantasy that many of us have, but who actually rolls up their sleeves, puts shovel to dirt and does it themselves?

Fifty-two-year-old Gemma Gadishaw, that's who.
Jill Rydall is a program instructor for the women-only job training program and a licensed carpenter.


"I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and I want to build a holiday home there for me and my sons," Gadishaw says. "I know I can do it."

That passion is a large part of what prompted the Etobicoke resident to make the untraditional career switch in her 50s, from corporate sales and customer service associate to construction worker. It was an idea she had toyed with years ago, but as a single mother with two children, it didn't seem like a practical move. She put the idea on the back burner, but through her 30s and 40s, she always had a nagging sense that she wasn't following her calling.

The spark that finally triggered her professional shift was a segment on Breakfast Television last year called Women in Hard Hats, profiling a new, women-only, job-training program in the trades called New Home Service Technician/ Enhanced General Carpentry. For Gadishaw, it seemed like the perfect way to carve out her future dreams.

"I always did really well in my career, but I never felt that personal sense of pride you get when you accomplish something, and where you see an actual end product as a result of your labour," Gadishaw explains. "I've always considered myself an artist at heart. So, when I reached my 50s, I realized I had about 15 years of work ahead of me, and I didn't want to spend those years doing what I'd done for last 30."

Geared at women 18 and older, the 46-week program features hands-on training to become new home service technicians and general contractors. Initiated by The Centre for Skilled Trades and Technology in Burlington, Ont., and with corporate and government support, the program launched in February 2003.
GEMMA GADISHAW
Career switch


17 students

Now in the middle of its second year of operation, the program features 18 weeks of in-class instruction, 12 weeks of on-site training and job shadowing and 16 weeks of paid work placement with builders or subcontractors. Its 17 students receive training in basic construction theory, safety, hand and power tools, wood framing, exterior and interior finishes, electrical work, plumbing and more.

Afterwards, a student-employer match is arranged and trainees begin the fieldwork component of their program. For the first two semesters, tuition is fully subsidized by the Ontario Women's Directorate, a division of the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration; by the end, they are earning a wage and will have obtained genuine job prospects.

Despite an impending labour shortage on the horizon for the trades, less than 5% of construction workers in Canada are women. The goal of the program is to address this situation by introducing workers that are equally as competent in the trades as their male counterparts.

"Women have an incredibly high skill level as far as operating tools. Guys can operate tools well, but women are really accurate. They really concentrate, multi-task and can adapt quite quickly to change," says Jill Rydall, program instructor and a licensed carpenter.

Because of the way the program is structured, Rydall says, by the time they graduate, they'll already be at the start of a new career. But to make it in the trades, she cautions, women have to arm themselves with self-confidence, and sometimes, a thick skin.

'Insecurities can multiply'

"When you're learning something brand new, and you don't have a lot of confidence, insecurities can multiply when entering a male-dominated field," Rydall says. "The first day is always stressful, but the people we've been working with are absolutely fabulous and very helpful."

As for Gadishaw, she joined the program earlier this year and is now in the second phase of the program, working on an after-sales service team with Monarch Construction Limited and helping new-home owners address any deficiencies in their house. She's still planning on building that holiday home, and would also one day like to start her own educational initiative to introduce young people to the trades.

The work is tiring, she says, but it's extremely satisfying having something at the end of the day to show for her tiredness. But does she ever get anxious about working in such a male-dominated field?

"Every day! It's a challenge, but I think I can do it. I have a brain, and I may not have the strength, but put me up against any 100-lb male, and I can do just as good a job, if not better."



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