Partners LIUNA and Aecon are buoyed by the stellar results of the first phase of the new Women in the Trades program they rolled out this spring and are seriously thinking of extending it to new trades and sectors.
Phase one saw 12 women enrolled in the construction craft worker program at the LIUNA (Labourers’ International Union of North America) Local 183 training centre in Vaughan, north of Toronto. It’s women-only, not co-ed.
For eight weeks beginning in May the apprentices underwent typical training for the craft trade, focusing on utilities work, and then all were placed on Aecon utilities crews.
The apprentices have committed to complete the requirement of 2,400 jobsite hours along with other conditions to obtain Red Seal certification and journeyperson status.
A second class of nine more trainees is now on site.
“It is an unbelievable initiative,” said 183 training centre executive director Sandro Pinto of the Aecon plan.
“They said they have a pool of women they are going to recruit, they wanted to have a class strictly of women, this is what we are prepared to do, we are going to hire them on.
“It is something the industry needs more of.”
Aecon human resources director Jenna Wood said Aecon is motivated by the ongoing recruiting challenge facing the entire sector as boomers retire and is also intent on tackling the specific issue of the lack of female workers in construction.
Aecon began talking about their proposal with LIUNA in February and LIUNA jumped aboard, although Pinto admits there were second thoughts about Aecon’s plan to make it women only.
“This was a really good surprise for us,” Pinto said.
“As a school, our initial perception was, they have to be integrated with men, they are going to be out there with men. But having them in a learning environment as the program happened, and having the feedback from our instructor, and the manager, having the women together for the eight weeks was probably better and worked out better for them.”
All concerned realized as the eight weeks passed that the trainees were gaining strength and confidence bolstered by the common challenge they were facing.
“It’s male dominated, the profession,” said apprentice Nicole Rushlow, a former retail employee from Uxbridge, Ont.
“This brought 12 of us together and relaxed us a little bit. ‘We can do this.’ It is not as hard as it seems to be. So now, going out in the field, we all talk to each other and bounce input off each other. The connections we have made is huge because we’ll always be able to reach out, ‘How did you do this?’ ”
Apprentice Ally Boutin of Kawartha Lakes, Ont. who previously worked in her family’s small construction firm, makes the same case.
“No two of us were the same,” said Boutin. “It was awesome for us to come together, we all had our strengths and weaknesses, and we all helped each other that way.”
Toronto native Jocelyn Butter, also a former retail worker, explained, “We all have the same goal and we all want to be successful throughout the program. You can lean on each other. If you had a mix there might have been competitiveness.
“We don’t compete with each other, we work together, we all get to the finish line as a team.”
Pinto suggested that a group of women, not faced with the “bravado” of male apprentices in a classroom, are able to work together to solve problems using different skills than men might.
Boutin offered an example.
“There is always a different way of doing things,” she said. “Just because this guy is 200 lbs. and has arms of steel, there is always a way around that where you can complete the job.
“Getting a jumping jack off the truck, that thing weighs the same as I do. They just pick it up, but there are ramps, a bunch of different ways you can complete the same tasks without overexerting yourself.”
Boutin, Butter and Rushlow all love the work they are doing in the field for Aecon and rave about the rewards of putting in a hard day’s work.
Butter, who said she likes to “prove people wrong,” is doing utilities work for Aecon on the Eglinton Crosstown job.
“It is very satisfying,” she said.
“You are out in the sun working hard with the guys and you might be all dirty going home and you say, ‘yeah, I worked today.’ So it is really nice, you are outdoors doing construction and learning a lot. It is an opportunity for me to shine.”
Bouton, currently working in the Fenelon Falls area for Aecon installing pipe for client Enbridge, said she likes the idea of representing women on the jobsite.
“You are driving through town and you see men, men, men, and you see a woman and they definitely represent us,” she said.
“My one big thing that I really like, if you show up on a jobsite and work hard, the guys start working harder because they don’t want a woman to outwork them. I have always gained a lot of respect from the men on my crew and I have always been the only women on my crew.
“I like a good day’s work, the accomplishments, meeting challenges, doing different work every day, completing tasks. There is the team atmosphere, jumping in and helping.”
Wood said Aecon is evaluating the program carefully to ensure it is properly structured and it applies to the firm’s various fields but once that is confirmed, expansion is likely.
“It is early stages but we have momentum right now and I think the sky’s the limit,” she said.
Follow Don Wall on Twitter at @DonWall_DCN.