Attaining the position of project manager for Guelph Ont.-based Speed River Contracting last November was the culmination of a long journey for Charlotte Verge who had to overcome parental disapproval for abandoning an academic career, plus dealing with ongoing health problems which can make life and work challenging.
Along the way, however, she has received support from teachers in college and trades schools and, for the most part, male colleagues, and gradual acceptance by her parents of her career choices.
“I come from a family where a high premium is placed on university-level education,” she says. “I have a Bachelor’s degree in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa and had every intention of pursuing a career in the health industry, specifically massage therapy, chiropractic studies, naturopathy or sports medicine.”
Verge never did pursue those careers, however, but did work for a time as a consultant for a private firm and then later with the City of Ottawa’s public health department, specializing in an anti-tobacco campaign.
Following a trip to New Zealand where she travelled and worked for a year, she returned to Canada and fell ill and was bedridden for a year, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and clinical depression.
“During this time, I realized I was unhappy working in public health. For much of my childhood, I had been driven by three goals: to participate in a cattle drive, to travel to New Zealand and to build my own home. The first two had already been met.”
With the exception of her maternal grandfather, who died when she was 12, none of her family members had the skills necessary to help her fulfill that dream.
So, Verge opted to change careers and enrolled in the two-year (now three-year) Building Renovation Technician Program at George Brown College in Toronto. The program provided a broad introduction into the construction industry and was the catalyst for pursuing a carpentry apprenticeship with a firm in Ottawa where she was living at the time.
Later, Verge moved to Guelph for professional and family reasons where she completed the apprenticeship and earned her Red Seal in 2014.
“Carpentry is a voluntary trade, but I felt the need to write the exam in anticipation of when I might want to teach or pursue other opportunities.”
After completing the apprenticeship, she started Koru Renovations which she operated on her own until she had a chance encounter with Bill Gagne, a fellow former student from her George Brown College days and also the sole proprietor of a renovation firm. “We literally met in a restaurant.”
For a time, the two helped each other out on some projects. Then, in 2017, Gagne created Speed River Contracting, and asked Verge to become its lead carpenter and single employee. Specializing in residential renovation, with some commercial work, the company has continued to grow and add more employees.
With that growth Verge has progressed from lead carpenter to site superintendent to project manager.
“My health concerns continue to be part of my day-to-day life. They aren’t entirely conducive to pursuing a career in a physical trade, so I have always known that I’d be unable to be on the tools in my 50s and 60s,” says Verge on her decision to take on her current role.
Asked if there was ever a time she regretted making the career switch from public health to construction, especially after the investment to acquire a university degree, Verge says the physical part of being in the trades can be difficult at times, but other than that she no regrets. “It has been a positive experience.”
In fact, her kinesiology training has helped her master carpentry which, by its very nature, requires kinesthetic skills.
“Understanding the anatomy and physiology of the human body can be, to some degree, applied to the construction or renovation of a home,” says Verge, adding that applying ergonomic theories and physics has helped her to avoid major injuries on the job.
As part of her commitment to promoting the skilled trades as a viable career option, especially for young women, Verge has been a speaker at college and high school educational fairs. She has also volunteered for a number of years with Skills Ontario, serving as a trades mentor, judge and co-tech chair for the Skills Ontario Competition.