As B.C. looks to pull itself out of its COVID-induced economic lull, the sectors expecting to be the economy’s major engines – mining, resources, construction and transportation – are struggling with skilled-labour shortages that could be resolved quickly if industry leaders looked in the right direction, observers say.
The key demographic that could provide the answer, they say, is women. According to B.C. advocates, educators and tradespeople, the potential for skilled female workers to offset the shortage of electricians, heavy-machinery operators, automotive repair technicians and other trades is huge in a province needing to maximize its workforce.
Few people have a better view of this than Lindsay Kearns, outreach co-ordinator at the BC Centre for Women in the Trades (BCCWITT) and a 10-year veteran electrician.
Kearns noted that, for all the new talent that’s emerging from B.C.’s training programs, the percentage of female workers in the province’s trades sits at a paltry 4.5% and has barely moved for decades.
“Isolation, discrimination and poor workplace culture have long been barriers for women to enter and stay in these great careers, and with the current skilled workers shortage, it’s time to start focusing on under-represented groups,” Kearns said. “I’m an optimist, and the shift is happening, but the change needs to start at the leadership level. Everyone has to buy in.”
To the industry’s credit, she said women today are more open than ever to entering fields that are predominantly male.
Kearns added that companies have typically been open to giving new female skilled workers a chance in starting out in their trades, but the real problem for fostering a lasting change is retention.
“So the idea is that we don’t have enough trade workers to deal with the retirement of so much of our older generation, but in reality, we do have those trade workers. They’ve just been chased off the job site because they haven’t been given the same opportunity for advancement, and they don’t often have a community of peers where they can ask questions and get the encouragement that they need that this is the career for them.”
Keith Mew, head of the auto collision department of Vancouver Community College’s trades training program, said interest from female students in classes such as his has been steadily rising, although still at a relatively low one out of 15 or 16 student ratio.
But Mew agreed that workplace culture remains a key barrier for many female tradespeople who have the skill to enter the field but soon find themselves overwhelmed by either overt sexism or covert discriminatory behaviours in certain work situations.
“100%, that’s an issue,” Mew said. “And it sometimes depends on the area where someone is working geographically – and the company that they are working for. One thing about the auto collision and refinishing industry is that there are some very large companies with great work cultures, and there are also some smaller shops that may not have the best.”
That’s why, Mew said, VCC offers additional support for female graduates. Mew checks in with alumni from time to time to make sure their post-graduation journey in their career fields is going smoothly. It doesn’t mean these women workers are getting preferential treatment, he said, but rather that their entry into the workplace is in on as even a playing field as possible.
“What I would say is – and what I say to all our students is – this only works as a career if you find joy in the act of working in a shop and performing tasks,” he said. “If there’s no joy in that for you – and it is a demanding job with long hours and stressful environments – it probably won’t be for you. But for women that come through, based on the challenges they face, we really try to support them with resources that we have ... because no one should be able to tell you that you are not allowed to pursue a career that makes you happy.”
One alumnus, Kiara Reissner, said she has been relatively lucky. While she is the only woman working at Richmond Auto Body in North Vancouver, co-workers have been understanding and respectful, allowing her to concentrate on her job and career path.
“I feel that there’s not a lot of women who continue [in trades], but I would like to break that mould,” Reissner said. “I’d like to have an apprentice one day. It’s difficult to find women mentorship. We do have a woman teacher at the shop at VCC, and she’s a great mentor. But I don’t know too many others. But the guys have been great, too. I don’t feel like I’ve been set apart from them in any way. They include me in everything.”
Kearns said experiences like Reissner’s show the importance of creating fundamental cultural changes at trades’ work sites, since female mentorship isn’t always available.
The BCCWITT participates in the provincewide “More than a Bystander” program of educating men about discriminatory practices at work and how to foster a more open workplace, and that will play a crucial role in getting the fundamental change B.C. trades need to fully embrace female workers at a time when they are needed the most.
“Women often don’t have access to that informal peer mentorship that you get from hanging out with your co-workers,” Kearns said. “And it’s crucial. It’s how you find out about jobs. It’s how you find great deals on tools and learning opportunities. If you are not connected with them because you are the only woman in your company … you are not playing hockey with the guys on Wednesday nights or fishing with them on Saturday mornings, you are missing out on opportunities because that’s where networking happens.”
Kearns agreed that industry leaders need to pay a bigger role. She spoke in January at the BC Natural Resources Forum about getting executive and managerial leadership in mining and resources sectors to buy in on the issue, a topic that – at the time – generated a lot of agreement from leading women executives in the field. One such official who spoke in support of Kearns was Carolyn Chisholm, director of external affairs at Rio Tinto Canada.
“There’s people who have been fighting the good fight for years who – because of the impact of the pandemic – now say that we do have to have regulated targets by government,” Chisholm said.
She was addressing the need for more women executives in the head offices to pave the way for welcoming more female tradespeople on the ground.
“Now, that’s a whole big topic … but it’s interesting that’s the conclusion of the people who have been in the trenches fighting this battle for a long time. They are saying we’ve reached that point, we have good intentions, but we are not getting there.”
She said the time for more leadership in maximizing the talents of B.C.’s female trades workers is now.
“It’s hard because you definitely don’t want a situation where management are the only ones working on initiatives towards equity,” she said. “It needs to include everybody. But we do need to see it from management, and one of the things we really need because of the pandemic is we really need to see all our amazing employers around B.C. tell us what entry-level opportunities they can provide. Because it is right now very hard for entry-level trade workers of all genders to get training.
“When there’s so many people available for jobs, we are seeing companies prefer to choose young men … because companies have to run smaller crews due to the pandemic. Women get left behind … And I get it. But what it does is it creates a huge imbalance in the workplace.” •