Here's why an N.L. approach to increasing women in the trades is going countrywide

The Newfoundland and Labrador approach to advancing women's employment in the trades is going Canada-wide.

Karen Walsh, the head of the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, says her group's model has broken barriers, and is now being expanded across the country.

"Ten years in, we have over 1,900 trades women registered in our database," Walsh said. "And have assisted with over 1,300 employment opportunities."

She told CBC Radio's On The Go that she's been travelling across the country for the past nine months, helping to set up offices in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Walsh's organization started in Newfoundland and Labrador a decade ago. Walsh said it was an outgrowth of a provincial government effort to promote women's employment in trades that had stalled.

Now, the office — which is run by the Carpenters Local 579, but funded by the provincial government — holds a database of women apprentices, a wage subsidy program and a mentorship program.

Positive results

Walsh says the approach has directly led to more women in the trades, crediting the "wrap-around supports" that her office offers.

According to TradesNL, an umbrella group for 16 building and construction unions in the province, women represented about 13 per cent of its unionized employees working at the Long Harbour and Hebron projects.

Ted Blades/CBC

The survey was taken between 2017 and 2018, and a spokesperson for TradesNL says the group does not monitor regularly.

Across Canada, women typically make up about four per cent, according to TradesNL.

Data from Statistics Canada suggests that women made up five per cent of workers in the Trades, Transport and Equipment Operators and Related Occupations classification in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2018, compared with 6.5 per cent for Canada as whole.

Walsh says her group has made progress, but still has a long way to go in changing the culture in Newfoundland and Labrador — she said women are still being encouraged to go to university first, and are routinely told that trades are an option only if you can't make it in post-secondary school.

Stephanie Courage, a plumber in Newfoundland and Labrador, says her male colleagues and union members have always been welcoming, but issues like inequity in promotions still exist.

Randy McAndrew/CBC

"In my 10 years in trades I can think of one female that had foreman position. So one female in the last 10 years got that higher rate," she said. 

"What creates the wage gap is there's more men in a higher paying positions."

Get the word out

Courage credits some of her success to the Office to Advance Women Apprentices.

She told CBC Radio's On The Go that she was studying to be a nurse, but kept experiencing setbacks, and eventually reached a breaking point.

"I initially thought I was going to be a nurse, and after several semesters of my grades plummeting at Memorial I decided I needed to look elsewhere," she said.

"Unfortunately, in high school, I wasn't really given the option or even the thought process of going into trades opposed to going to MUN. My mother's a nurse, my sister's a nurse. I was going to be a nurse." 

She says she eventually decided on plumbing, in part because her dad worked in a plumbing supply company.

She says the key to getting more young women interested in skilled trades is promoting and marketing them as options.

Office to Advance Women Apprentices/Facebook

"One of the most important things that we do with the office to advance women's apprentices is of course mentoring young girls. The high school, the junior high-aged group," she said. "Go in and tell them you have options."

"It's actually very exciting, and it's very empowering to be able to do the same work that the men are doing, and it's very empowering that I can pick up the tools and I can use them just the same as the men next to me."

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