At 31, Heather Ferguson is one of the top young millwrights in Canada.
The Kingston, Ont., resident placed third in the millwrights category of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ (UBC) National Apprenticeship Contest held in Ottawa recently where 38 of Canada’s best young carpenters, drywallers, millwrights, scaffolders and floor-covering installers competed against the clock and each other for top spot in their respective trades.
“I am honoured to do so well,” says Ferguson, who had been selected to represent Ontario in the competition.
Millwright contestants were given a three-hour theory exam and practical tests, including coupling alignments to motors and pumps using a laser and mechanical dials.
“We do a lot of this out in the field (at work) but we have so many different jobs,” she says. “I just tried to remember all the skills I needed to know. I was very proud of myself for getting through it.”
About 1,500 people turned out for the contest which was held at the training centre of Carpenters Local 93 and Drywall Acoustic Lathing and Insulation Local 2041.
The contest showed the public just how diverse the trade is, says Rod Thompson, president and local area manager of Local 93 which co-hosted the event with Local 2041 and Millwrights Local 1410.
“The misconception is that carpenters build houses; it is so much more complex.”
The annual national event saw more women contestants than years past, Thompson says. “I think education is a big piece of that. We’ve been hosting women in the trades here which has generated a lot of interest. Given the chance to see it (the field) first-hand, it becomes a tangible, viable career path for them.”
Ferguson says the competition’s public face is important because “it lets people know what we do” and it affords contestants opportunities to meet other tradespeople from across Canada.
She says her training through Local 1410 in Kingston and other training sites, including the UBC’s international complex in Las Vegas, were instrumental in helping her develop her skills. To obtain journeyperson status, millwrights require 8,000 hours.
Ferguson, who just passed her journeyperson exam, says she signed up with the union six years ago. After high school, she took a two-year industrial millwright program and a one-year welding program. “The economy was slow so it was five years before I got to start my apprenticeship.”
Ferguson credits her parents for supporting her career decision at a time when some of her friends weren’t so sure about her choice. “My parents told me to go for it and they would back me…”
Now employed by OPG, she says she’s been fortunate to face few gender barriers over her years in the field. “I just show up and do the job as well as everybody else. All my co-workers have been pretty much like family. Everyone helps out each other.”
Ferguson says she would recommend the field to any young woman looking at a career in the building trades.
“It’s a great career — you get a great pension (with the union), benefits and they train you through your apprenticeship and you make good money while you are doing it.”
While Ferguson is the only woman millwright at Local 1410, she stays in touch with a number of female millwrights based out of Toronto.
She isn’t the only woman who did well as a millwright. Kristie Latta of Millwrights Local 1443 in Winnipeg finished second in the category.
Ed Spence, executive secretary treasurer, Millwright Regional Council of Ontario, says he was pleased with the turnout of high school students — more than 600 — bussed to the training centre to watch the competition.
“It was an opportunity for them to experience first-hand the dynamic skills an apprentice millwright develops throughout their career…the complex mechanical skills and theories that our members deliver daily to our partner contractors in Ontario, Canada, and throughout North America.”
Spence says the national event “brings new interest in a career with the Millwright Regional Council of Ontario.”