New college program trains Indigenous women in carpentry as demand for trades surges in Okanagan

·2 min read
Okanagan College's 30-week program will teach Indigenous women the basics of the carpentry trade. (Okanagan College - image credit)
Okanagan College's 30-week program will teach Indigenous women the basics of the carpentry trade. (Okanagan College - image credit)

The Okanagan College has begun a new, fully subsidized program to train more Indigenous women as carpenters, with jobs in trades in high demand due to a boom in construction across the region.

According to the Kelowna, B.C., college, students starting the 30-week SISTERS' program this week will learn the basics of the carpentry trade, including the use of tools and how to work with different materials such as lumber and concrete.

The Okanagan Training and Development Council (OTDC) will sponsor students for the program's $4,444 tuition, along with $680 in expenses for textbooks and personal protective equipment, and $250 in expenses for tools.

The OTDC receives funding from the federal government to sponsor vocational training programs for members of six Indigenous communities: the Okanagan Indian Band, Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Upper Similkameen Indian Band and Lower Similkameen Band.

Nancy Darling, program manager for women in trades at Okanagan College, says the school created the program after noticing the very high participation from Indigenous women in trades programs over the past decade.

Meeting demands from the housing industry

Darling says the program will help meet demands for talent from the construction industry.

"We've got just an incredibly busy housing market for a number of years," she said on CBC's Daybreak South. "Everybody is really screaming for housing — people can't get enough workers."

Darling adds that some Indigenous mentors for the college's women in trade programs are providing spaces for students from outside Kelowna to live, so they don't have to travel back and forth for school.

However, despite the demand for skilled workers, women seeking jobs in trades still face challenges.

Métis carpenter Jenna Perask, an Okanagan College alumna, says she faced sexual discrimination when applying for jobs and that it took her 13 interviews over the course of six months to land her first gig.

"I'm a very petite woman," she said. "As soon as I walked in to get hired, they looked at me and basically [their] heads tilted right away."

Submitted by Jenna Perask
Submitted by Jenna Perask

Darling says she understands those challenges and the college aims to help address them by having a career development practitioner help students write CVs and cover letters, and by organizing field trips for students to get to know potential employers.

"Engaging the women in all kinds of things like the subtleties on a job site … really helps the women to have the confidence to go and get those first jobs," she said.

The college has also created a six-week introductory program for women of all cultural backgrounds, called Step into Steel Toes, to learn the basics of trades including carpentry, automotive mechanics, plumbing and electrical.