Behind a blinding wall of blue and white light in the welding shop, Vikki Schembri finally found her spark at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The 29-year-old was defending her master’s thesis in health sciences this time last year. Her family and teachers had always praised her intelligence and research abilities, but despite her success, she disliked the work.
“My parents used to say, ‘University is the best way to go to school. Once you graduate, you can do whatever you want,'” she says. “And now I have a degree and I have a welding degree, and I’m still wondering if I can do what I want.”
In a climate where skilled workers are retiring at some of the highest rates in the workforce, graduates from Northwestern Ontario programs have fallen by a third since 2001.
Despite efforts to promote gender diversity, men continue to make up the largest share of all tradespeople.
New data from the North Superior Workforce Planning Board shows that the gender balance in the region is changing more slowly than elsewhere in the province. Only 8.5 per cent of the 1,100 active apprentices in the District of Thunder Bay last year were women, compared to a provincial average of 12.5 per cent.
In the days following her career-changing revelation, Schembri stumbled upon the Women Of Steel program online. The non-profit organization CWB offers the free one-week arc welding certificate in two towns in southern Ontario, including Milton, where her parents live.
Trades had always intimidated her as much as they intrigued her, but as early as high school, she doesn’t remember any of her friends showing interest.
“I saw it as removing all those barriers that kept me from getting into welding: the initial financial investment, having the equipment I need and also the ability to enter in a classroom and say, ‘I don’t know anything about this, and I want to learn’, which is really difficult for me because I like to be very educated before I say or do anything. ”
She enrolled in the college’s welding techniques program within a month and has now graduated as one of two women among 11 students.
Persistent gender gap
Madge Richardson, executive director of the North Superior Workforce Planning Board, said she could not explain the persistent gender gap in trades in the region, but added that it affects women’s earning power in general.
Its 2022 labor market plan revealed that female-dominated sectors have suffered disproportionate job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, including layoffs, fewer full-time positions and more precarious work.
She said making childcare available is the easiest way to level the playing field.
“It’s gradually changing a little too slowly for my liking, but I think childcare is often expected to be a woman’s role,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t necessarily happen because it’s a conscious decision.
“But I think a lot of it comes down to looking after the kids. Someone has to stay home with those kids, so if you’re just looking at earning a salary, that may be default for the wife because she earn less. And that’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”
In the smaller communities of the region, the persistent gender imbalance is even more glaring.
Fewer than 10 women per year are taking trades apprenticeships in the districts of Kenora and Rainy River out of 245 and 131 active apprenticeships, respectively. For confidentiality reasons, Ontario records numbers as low as zero percent.
Society ‘stuck on pink and blue roles’
Crystal George, executive director of the North West Training and Adaptation Council, confirmed that even those small numbers have dropped, rolling back the progress women made before the pandemic.
“I think society is still stuck on the ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ roles of the workforce,” George said. “Ontario is entering a major era of natural resources and construction that will require thousands of skilled workers. The demand for skilled workers in Ontario is growing, so it’s time for our women to step up. There are so many possibilities out there.
Many of these opportunities involve outsourcing to small businesses, but those that specialize in women’s entrepreneurship see greater challenges for clients who go this route.
The PARO Center for Women’s Enterprise in Thunder Bay launched its Commercial Supplier Database to connect women-owned trades businesses with heavy industry like mining companies to give start-ups greater visibility.
“Hiring a woman to be part of your staff as part of your business is different from contracting a woman-owned business. This imposes a whole host of barriers to access,” said Melissa Cook, PARO’s local program manager. “There’s already an established old boys’ club that’s been around for 100 years or more, and that’s especially hard to break because you’re mixing systemic barriers with cultural barriers.”
To change that mindset in the next generation, each school board in the region runs internships known as the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program. Along with Confederation College, they specifically target girls as young as grade 7 to consider a career in the trades.
Apprentice welder Kaitlyn Baldwin will participate in video conferences this week with students from her former high school in Fort Frances as a role model for women in the trades.
Baldwin discovered his career path early on and graduated with a High Skills Honors degree. She began an apprenticeship at the nearby New Gold mine.
Now 24 and having traveled to train from Sault Ste. Marie in Emo, she is looking forward to getting a stable job so she can spend more time with her two children. But she makes no apologies for focusing on her career despite all the obstacles and expectations women face.
“You always get, ‘Where are your kids going? What are you doing with your kids?’ I know that when I hear men at work taking apprenticeships, no one ever says, “Oh my God, how are you doing? Who takes care of your children? How could you leave them?”
“But I’m doing something that benefits me and my family in the long run. Once you get your red seal, it’s something you have for life, and once you get it, you can go anywhere in Canada.”