'The sky's the limit' for new class of female carpentry students, says would-be mentor

·3 min read
Donna Ferguson of SheBuilds with her niece, Evelyn Guitard. Evelyn's not quite old enough for this new apprenticeship program, but her aunt wants her to know construction is a viable career option for her.
Donna Ferguson of SheBuilds with her niece, Evelyn Guitard. Evelyn's not quite old enough for this new apprenticeship program, but her aunt wants her to know construction is a viable career option for her.

(SheBuilds/Facebook - image credit)

A group of nine women headed into a classroom in Moncton on Tuesday to begin a 14-week introduction to carpentry.

Some of them are single moms. One of them has a five-year goal of owning her own home. All of them have been promised paid on-the-job training if they pass this course.

"It's good work. It's good paying jobs. You can take this to whatever level you want. Five, ten years from now you can see them having their own companies," said Donna Ferguson, owner of SheBuilds Communities for Life.

SheBuilds is the employer partner in the program.

Ferguson has been a general contractor for 32 years and is enthusiastic about helping to develop the next generation, while also addressing a couple of pressing shortages - skilled tradespeople and affordable housing.

Submitted by Donna Ferguson
Submitted by Donna Ferguson

The students have undergone an extensive application and interview process, said Ferguson, and will work with her company on affordable housing projects once they successfully complete some basic training.

That includes math, reading blueprints and hands-on learning with concrete, framing, drywall, flooring, trim work, cabinetry, and painting.

"We want them to have a really good taste of what it's like to work in construction," said Ferguson.

They'll also learn about safety and first aid and receive free protective gear.

"We want them to have a strong foundation in safety before they go to the job site," she said.

Tuition is being paid for by the non-profit organization, New Brunswick Mentor Apprentice Program (NB-MAP), which was developed by the New Brunswick Building Trades Unions in cooperation with the provincial government.

NB-MAP has a network aimed at increasing the participation of women in non-traditional skilled trades, called New Boots.

SheBuilds/Facebook
SheBuilds/Facebook

According to the provincial website, NB Jobs, about a thousand new carpenters will be needed in the next 10 years.

"There's a whole group of people who are being untapped," said Ferguson.

Recent research has found the reasons more women aren't in the trades have less to do with things like childcare, finances or family support, said Ferguson, and more to do with fear -- of the unknown, of being good enough and of what happens on the jobsite.

"The only cure I know for fear is training and experience," she said.

"When you step on the site you've already demystified it quite a bit."

Ferguson says there's no reason women can't be good carpenters.

SheBuilds/Facebook
SheBuilds/Facebook

Before she became a contractor, she used to work as a civil engineering technologist. She liked using math and working on projects.

"You really just need to be able to pay attention to detail, work well within the team and use the right tools."

"We're not lowering expectations," she said. "We're lowering the barriers."

Ferguson said the training is delivered in "a very supportive" environment.

In her experience, Ferguson has found women tend to "stick out" on construction sites. She said that can make a person feel very self-conscious.

The SheBuilds on-the-job training site will be female dominated, which she expects will take some pressure off.

In another sense, though, the pressure is higher.

"I'm pretty sure they understand that they are going to become role models for the next generation and for their own children. It's a little bit of pressure," she said. "But I find women succeed with pressure. So, that's alright."

The students have to complete 1,300 hours of on the job training before they can take a Block 1 carpentry course.

They're expected to get that experience after they graduate from this introductory course in May by working on affordable housing projects, which have yet to be announced.

Within five years they could be Red Seal carpenters.

"After that the sky's the limit," said Ferguson.