Sudbury has skilled trades gap. Women can fill it: conference

With Ontario suffering a shortage of workers across skilled labour industries, women are well-positioned to fill the gaps, but only if given the opportunity.

That’s according to a group of Sudbury women working in trades across the city.

This week, Cambrian College hosted the women for a panel discussion as part of their Jill of All Trades conference. The one-day event brought together girls from grades seven to 12 to participate in hands-on activities and thoughtful discussions to inspire them to consider a career in a skilled trade.

The hour-long panel focused on the experiences of women in labour industries, including the many challenges and opportunities they’ve faced.

Panelist Julia Salvalaggio, manager of human resources at MacLean Engineering, said there’s never been a better time for young women to consider a career in trades.

“There’s a long list of things that are appealing in skilled trades, but primarily, (the) opportunity for advancement,” she said. “With the skilled labour shortage in Ontario, there is an abundance of opportunity.

"Organizations are looking for skilled tradespeople who have the capacity to be leaders. There is a large amount of task variety. There are just so many different advantages.”

Currently, only five per cent of skilled trades workers across the country are women, according to Statistics Canada.

Lea Willemse, the smelter environmental superintendent at Glencore, said women are ready and able to fill the gaps in labour needs if the industries are willing to let them.

“Supplementing a male-dominated industry with the incredible women that we have could help alleviate some of the shortage,” she said. “It’s about shifting the norms, so that it doesn’t become a diversity hire. We can exceed those boundaries and those challenges, and overcome that worldview. We have a place and we can make our mark and become the leaders that we know we can be.”

The experiences of female workers who enter skilled trades jobs can vary. Kendra Liinamaa, a millwright apprentice at Vale, said the acceptance a female worker receives in her workplace can often depend on company culture and leadership.

But overall, a steady shift towards acceptance across industries has made it easier for women to pursue options previously unavailable to them.

“I think the best way to get that acceptance is to put yourself out there,” said Liinamaa. “Carry the tools or push the toolbox around. Put in that extra effort so that people can see that you’re there to learn and you’re there to grow.

"If you show that you’re pushing yourself, people are going to want to teach you because they see that you’re taking it seriously.”

Still, the need to defend their right to their positions by going above and beyond their male co-workers can be frustrating.

For Alex Kis, a mechanic with Manitoulin Transport, there is the added pressure of representing all other women when working in a male-dominated industry.

“You are the image of women in the trade,” she said. “If you leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth in some company, they may not want to hire more women. There are pros and cons, and there is some anxiety going into it, but you need to have the confidence to stand up for and believe in yourself.”

She added that sharing their experiences with other women is vital to ensure women aren’t discouraged from pursuing these jobs.

“I’m tired of having this conversation of having to defend ourselves,” she said. “It’s frustrating, which is why I love hearing your stories. I love that we are here and doing this and this is helping to break up barriers and show women that we can do this.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

Twitter: @mia_rjensen

Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star