The Changing Face of Trades: Women in the Workforce

How many tradeswomen do you know? Think about it. Not counting hairstylists, you can probably count them on one hand.

Yet, recent reports show the number of women in trades is on the rise. The Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board’s 2014 Statistical Profiles report shows a steady increase in the number of female registered apprentices. In 2014, that number reached 6,302, up from 5,846 in 2013. Among 25 trades listed the largest increase in registered apprentices were for welders, heavy equipment technicians, gassfitters, and landscape gardeners.

Registered female apprentices in Alberta

Despite the increasing number of female registered apprentices, women still make up less than 9 percent of the total number of registered apprentices. Women apprentices are also less likely to complete a trade program then their male counterparts according to Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education. In the 2013/14 school year, 74 percent of apprentices completed all their requirements compared to 65 percent of female apprentices.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released its own report in July, 2015. It notes, “women’s education levels are higher then men’s in every area except the trades.” So why aren’t there more women in the trades? Ask different people and you get different answers.

Red Seal journeyman tile setter, Jill Drader (34), thinks the apprenticeship system is part of the problem and a major reason why there are so few women in the trades.

Drader is an experienced educator and coach. She earned her first degree in International Development from the University of Calgary in 2005 and later secured her journeyman tile setter and stoneworker ticket after completing the trades program at SAIT in 2009. Jill was then offered a position at SAIT, which involved curriculum development, instructional design, and instructing. In 2014 she was named to Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 list for her work helping women get their start in the trades through Women in Work Boots.

“I truly believe that apprenticeship is a broken model,” Drader says. “You have to go get a job, have that person support you and then [convince them to] allow you to go to school.” According to Drader, it’s a system that poses a significant barrier to entry.

“Imagine we allowed those who have a strong desire to be in this industry to sign up, get trained, and then go out and get skills and get work experience as we do with every other sector. You would have more women signing up,” Drader says.

More skilled tradeswomen would improve the workforce by helping to address the shortage of skilled tradespeople, which continues effect businesses.

Another problem with the apprenticeship system, when compared with mainstream university or college educational systems, is how it relates to external market forces. Drader notes, when the market is soft and jobs are scarce, people often take that time to go to school and upgrade their skills. However this is nearly impossible in trades because nobody is hiring.

Women are excelling as trades.

Notwithstanding, women like April Valentine (30), a journeyman electrician, are changing the face of the industry through hard work and perseverance.

Originally from Hastings, Ontario, Valentine developed an interest in trades work in 2005 when she moved to Whistler, British Columbia with her then boyfriend. He was doing a plumbing apprenticeship and it started the wheels turning for Valentine who started thinking about doing her own apprenticeship.

April: Female trades who are changing the face of the industry
April is part of a growing number of exceptional female trades who are changing the face of the industry.

Then she saw a labour job advertised in the paper. It promised workers the day off if it snowed over a certain amount. “So I said, sign me up!” Valentine recalls.

After the winter season she moved back home. It was time to start focusing on her long-term career. She broached the topic of becoming a trade with her mom saying, “I wish that I could do that.” Her mom replied, “Well, why can’t you?”

So she started to explore her options, speaking to various tradespeople from carpenters, framers and electricians, evaluating which might be best for her. She settled on electrical work.

“I was kind of skeptical. I was thinking, maybe I can’t do this. Maybe it will be too hard,” Valentine admits.

Testing the waters, Valentine started applying for jobs. She sent out resumes and cover letters, but didn’t receive any replies.

“Nobody took me seriously,” Valentine says. “Some places I applied to multiple times. I got frustrated because some of my guy friends applied to the same places and got hired.”

Then in 2006 Valentine moved to Calgary where her luck changed. Within a week of arriving she had a job lined up. The company hiring was unique in that women workers formed the majority. However, if Valentine thought she’d get a warm reception, she was in for a surprise.

“They shunned me,” Valentine recalls. “They gave me a look up and down. They were cold towards me and weren’t friendly at all.”

She changed companies. Through a few twists and turns, Valentine finally landed at Dynamic Building Technologies, a commercial electrical specialist focusing on electrical repair and lighting solutions. She still works there today.

April working on an electrical project
April, electrician and project manager, installs nearly 200 upgraded lighting fixtures as part of a recent project in a Calgary warehouse.

“I enjoy getting up in the morning. It’s a very rewarding job,” Valentine says. How often do you hear someone say that?

Making the decision to go to school and get an apprenticeship has worked out extremely well for Valentine. In fact, she met her husband in trades school and together they now have a beautiful young daughter.

Valentine says she lucked out. The company she works for was very supportive about her maternity leave. It was a bumpy road through apprenticeship, but she thoroughly loves her job as an electrician.

Women face unique challenges.

Valentine thinks women who are considering a career in the trades can be scared away because it’s such a male-dominated profession. Not surprisingly, gender prejudices and discrimination are still a reality for many tradeswomen.

Valentine says it’s not unusual to be second-guessed by equipment salesmen who underestimate her expertise, or for clients to assume a male colleague is in charge even if she has seniority.

For Jill Drader it’s been even more overt. She once experienced blatant sexism when a group of workers began cat calling her from afar. Yet, Drader graciously points out that women face issues in every field, not just in the trades. A few bad apples can give a whole industry a bad reputation.

“Some select individuals, who are immature, rude and disrespectful, desire to maintain the landscape of what it might have been at one time,” Drader says, rather than adapting to the current times and “different face [of] the workforce.”

Kat Hassard (28), a pipe trades instructor at SAIT, says a double standard exists whereby women’s skills are underrated or overlooked by potential employers when men’s are not.

It’s something she’s experienced first hand. After two interviews with a company she had applied for, she was told that the company had never hired a female employee before and they were not sure how it would work. Despite the fact that she had the qualifications, she was passed over for the job.

“I was basically told to my face, that they weren’t going to hire me because I was a woman,” Hassard reports. “It had nothing to do with qualifications. It had everything to do with gender.”

As an instructor, Kat now spends 8 to 10 hours on campus in the classroom or in her office. She says she enjoys tutoring and mentoring students, preparing them for their careers in the trades. During the summer she works periodically to keep her skills current.

The industry is evolving.

There is no question that building a career in the trades is an uphill battle, especially when you’re facing roadblocks simply because of your gender. Yet, more women are signing up all the time.

“I don’t think this is a just trend, I think it’s a shift,” Drader says. “There’s quiet representation and power in numbers.”

Hassard says women need to support each other, whether it is in school or in the work place. “Use the buddy system. Find another woman that’s in the trades. Just having someone to vent to and bounce ideas off of makes a huge difference.”

Valentine agrees. She remembers the impact of having the support of a fellow student while attending classes at SAIT. “My first year I had a locker two down from another girl who was in fourth year,” Valentine says. “She said ‘Good for you! You can totally do this! You got this!’”

Electrical for lighting fixtures
April prepares the wiring on a lighting fixture for installation.

Now, Valentine makes it a point to pass on that encouragement to others.

“There’s immense opportunity for women and entrepreneurship in this industry, whether you finish the formal training or not, you can still own a business,” Drader suggests. “My core belief is that we will have more women in the skilled trades when we have more female business owners.”

The face of the industry is changing, and more women are stepping up to the challenge of becoming a skilled tradesperson. It may be daunting, but the opportunities are there for the taking. With over 250,000 skilled tradespeople expected to retire over the next ten years, Canada is already feeling the shortage of skilled labour. To say the industry needs women in the workforce is an understatement. It’s time for the construction industry to move past its boys-only mentality.

“If you told me ten years ago I was going to be an instructor or a teacher I wouldn’t have believed you,” Hassard admits.

“I love my job and I think more women can do it. I would just like to help more women realize that they can do it,” Valentine adds.

It’s true that change takes time. It takes patience and tolerance and a thick skin to make it in the trades, however the rewards are worth the effort. But the system can only be improved when people join together, arm in arm to make it happen.

Drader concludes, “It’s about being the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said.”

This article was originally published on

Customer Service Hero: Dodge & Burn

Customer Service Hero

Many aspects of business are difficult — if not impossible — to control. Influencing, or even predicting, the multiplicity of factors that impact the success or failure of a business keeps many entrepreneurs up at night. Business owners struggle to reach new markets, develop sound supply chains and keep up with changing social and technological trends, many of which they have no control over. That’s why more and more savvy business owners are looking to optimize areas of the business that they do control. Customer service, for example, is one aspect of a business that can be controlled to a high degree. Unfortunately, many businesses overlook this critical area of opportunity; however, my recent experience with an online t-shirt retailer Dodge & Burn reinforced my belief in the power of customer service.

As an avid photographer and collector of camera equipment and paraphernalia, I happened upon a website selling photography-inspired graphic t-shirts. There were a range of colours and styles to choose from, each with a different camera model printed on the front. After perusing through the website and checking out the shipping options, I decided to purchase four shirts. Within minutes of checking out, I received a confirmation email of my purchase and a notice indicating shipping time.  Excellent.

A few days later, I was the happy recipient of four t-shirts. After unpacking them, I washed them so they’d be ready to wear the next day. I decided to wear the black one first, but as I was putting it on, the shirt ripped. Disappointed, I showed my girlfriend and exclaimed, “I just bought this! And now look at it!”

A few days later, I was reading an article on the photography blog PetaPixel when I noticed an article about Dodge & Burn. A few other readers had left comments below the article so I decided to share my experience about my t-shirt ripping. To be fair, I also pointed out the excellent communication and fast shipping of the seller.

The day after posting my comment I received an email from the owner of Dodge & Burn, Ted Rybakowski:

I heard through the grapevine that one of your shirts ripped.  We’ll be more than happy to send you a replacement (provided we have it in stock).  Let me know which shirt was faulty and I’ll have a new one out to you ASAP.

 I was blown away by Ted’s dedication to customer service. Ted was obviously aware of the press he was receiving on PetaPixel, and had read the comments section under the article. He could have easily overlooked my comment, chalking it up to a whiny customer. Instead he took it as an opportunity to service his customer and stand behind his product. I replied to Ted, by complimenting him on his service and thanking him for his offer. To that he replied:

Actually, I saw your comment on PetaPixel this morning and was sorry to read that your shirt tore before you even wore it.  Part of the fun I have in running this business is that I get to run it exactly how I want to, and that includes making sure my customers are happy (it’s right there in the FAQ where we describe our customer satisfaction policy)!  Your replacement shirt is going out in tomorrow morning’s post.  Don’t hesitate to get back in touch for any reason.

Ted certainly made his point: I was one happy customer — happy enough to write an article about it and happy enough to share the experience with my friends and other photography enthusiasts.

When customers are treated fairly it stands out. Sadly, it stands out because so few businesses focus on it. If every business treated customers as fairly as Dodge & Burn did, I wouldn’t be writing this article. It would be par for the course.

The opportunity is clear: when others are ignoring their customers, focusing on customer service will increase all-important brand loyalty. Ted heard that his customer’s shirt had ripped its stitches; however, by standing behind his product, by setting things right, Ted will reap what he has sewn. His act of recompense has turned what would otherwise be a one-time sale, into a word-of-mouth bonanza. As a business owner, you can’t control everything, but you certainly can control your dedication to your customers.

Hey Managers: Listen Up

I’ve been lucky. Over the years much of my time has been spent talking to managers and business owners, secure in the knowledge that my voice was being heard. Admittedly, I’ve encountered managers who didn’t listen to a word I said; they were too busy trying to impress me with their own business acumen or, worse yet, just loved the sound of their own voice. However, seven times out of ten, the managers I’ve worked with have been eager to hear my suggestions; they genuinely want to improve their business and they’re willing to consider new ways of doing so, even if it means pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone.

The years I spent consulting were rewarding, but after 15 years, I decided to make a change. I began working on a communications degree — majoring in journalism — while continuing to consult during the summer months.

No sooner had my spring classes ended, then I was invited by a friend of mine to meet with him and his two managers. They wanted to discuss a new business venture they were working on. I agreed and we set up a meeting. A few days later I found myself sitting in the president’s corner office, taking in the impressive view the city’s river pathways and the mountains beyond. After exchanging pleasantries and lamenting the cloudy, rainy weather, the four of us – my colleague, the president and the vice-president – sat down around a small circular table to discuss the situation. My colleague sat silently beside me while management outlined their goals for the new venture.

After taking some notes and asking some questions, I felt the time was right to start making suggestions and outlining a course of action. The president had suggested a number of great ideas; however, there was one particular idea that could potentially cause serious problems in the future it was implemented. As tactfully as possible, I pointed out the potential pitfalls of the president’s idea and suggested an alternative course of action. Next, I referenced other well-known organizations that had successfully used a similar approach. Finally, I outlined the benefits of my approach and the risks of ignoring it. Having made my case, it was now up to management to make a decision. They made it quickly. The president said, “You’ve made some good points. I think your ideas fit with the direction we want to go”. Awesome. They would implement my suggestion.

We wrapped up a few minor details, discussed next steps and then concluded the meeting. My colleague walked me out of the office and accompanied me down to the lobby on the main floor where we said goodbye.

As I walked back to my car, which was parked a few blocks away, I thought about how well the meeting had gone. When they spoke, I listened, and when I spoke they reciprocated. It was an exchange of ideas amongst equals with the purpose of solving problems. I found myself motivated. These managers had respected my opinions and now I wanted to prove my worth. I wanted to prove that their trust was well placed.

Unfortunately, not all managers take the time to listen and truly consider the ideas proposed by their employees.  In other cases, managers pay lip service to employees by asking for suggestions but then ignoring their replies. Because of this, many employees simply stop sharing their opinions. A recent study conducted in 2011 and published by the Journal of Business Ethics, suggests not listening to employees also tends to increase conflict in the workplace. According to the study, “disgruntled employees took out their frustrations on co-workers because they feared losing their jobs or experiencing other reprisals if they challenged their managers.”

The disadvantages of shutting out employees, and ignoring their suggestions can damage, and even destroy morale in the workplace. In a competitive economy, businesses cannot afford to have unhappy, unproductive employees.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Employees whose managers paid attention were more likely to offer input and got along better with one another, thereby improving the organization’s morale and functioning as a whole.

Employee engagement consultants Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton have gathered empirical evidence supporting the concept that happy workers are more productive. In their new book All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results, Gostick and Elton make a convincing case. They looked at data from over 700 companies and found the ones that were most successful had employees that were “engaged, enabled and energized” – something the authors refer to as E+E+E.

Engaged, enabled and energized was exactly how I felt after my meeting. Knowing that my ideas are heard and considered — and occasionally implemented – keeps me motivated and enthusiastic about my job.  As the research indicates, happy employees are more productive. Admittedly, listening to employees is just one of the many factors involved in keeping employees happy, but it might just be the cheapest, easiest and most effective way to do so. That’s advice worth listening to.