Welding course for women sparks interest in male-dominated trade

A new welding program at Algonquin College is aiming to attract more women to a traditionally male-dominated trade. 

The 30-hour course, called Women of Steel, was developed by the Canadian Welding Bureau with funding from the federal government. It was piloted at six colleges this summer, and will now be taught across the country.  

Helen and Mary Ann Gray, a mother-daughter duo from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, signed up for the program together. 

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Mary Ann Gray said she became interested in welding after being introduced to it at her high school.

"I also thought it would be a good family bonding thing to do," she said.

Helen Gray said her own interest began at a young age when she used to watch her father weld. 

"He used to do it with the big tanks and he'd light the torch, and it was a different type of welding that he was doing. But I always was interested in it ever since I've seen him do that when I was a little kid." 

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Intimidating at first

The college program includes an introduction to the welding trade, safety training and basic theory. The students learn the shielded metal arc welding method, also known as "stick welding" because it involves striking an arc between an electrode rod and the metal.

Mary Ann Gray said it was slightly intimidating at first, especially when sparks started flying.

"But after a while, it got really easy and more comfortable to do," she said.

Charlene Hayes, the course's instructor, said learning to weld involves problem solving, creativity, critical thinking and coordination. 

Graduates will be instantly employable, Hayes said. "It's one of the best jobs on the planet."

Fewer than 1 in 20 welders are women

Jessica Critch, a mother of two, was introduced to welding at the Youville Centre in Ottawa before enrolling in the program at Algonquin. 

She said completing her first project gave her a great sense of achievement.

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"It was just great being able to see metal lying there and then seeing the final outcome, knowing I was the one who did it." 

Now, she wants to pursue a career in welding, where women currently make up less than five per cent of the workforce, according to the Canadian Welding Bureau. 

Critch said there were no women's washrooms at her co-op placement at Taggart Construction, but that didn't faze her. 

"Once they knew I was OK being in the shop with men, they were totally willing and accepting and fully involved in me wanting to pursue a career in welding," she said

Once the women complete their 30 hours, they must pass a test to obtain their Canadian Welding Bureau qualification.