An organization that helps women find work in under-represented trades in Newfoundland is proving success has no boundaries.
Based on a formula which has found work for 1,300 women in Newfoundland, the Office to Advance Women Apprentices (OAWA) is assisting others to set up offices in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the rest of Atlantic Canada.
“We’ve been looked at as a national best practice, so we have replicated our office structure and are rolling out in other provinces,” Karen Walsh, executive director of the OAWA, says.
While the national average of women in under-represented trades is three to four per cent, in Newfoundland that number is between 13 to 14 per cent — up about 10 per cent since the OAWA was founded a decade ago.
Along with the building trades, under-represented trades include such fields as auto-body/auto repair and food preparation.
Walsh attributes the OAWA’s success in part to its efforts at meeting with many small to medium-sized companies and contractors. “We have helped them with inclusion plans…we have a database of (about 2,000) women they can look to.”
She says in the first six months of 2019, the OAWA helped 90 women get jobs in under-represented trades and most of those jobs were with small to medium-sized companies.
One of the areas the OAWA has made strides — where other initiatives have failed — is at keeping the women it helps find jobs employed in their trade of choice.
“The missing link is often wrap-around support services, not only to the women but also the employers and our supporting partners,” Walsh says. “Many other provinces are saying: Women are going into the trades but they are not staying.”
“If a woman is on site and she’s the first to be laid off or she’s struggling to stay in the trade…these are the types of issues we’ve been able to support so we can keep women in the trades and advance them.”
Since the OAWA was founded about a decade ago, 174 of its women have achieved Red Seal Certifications “and a lot more of them are in their fourth year and will be getting their certification in the next year or two.”
One of the ways women break the myth that their gender doesn’t belong in the industry is by proving “over and over again” on the jobsite that they can do the same work as the men, she says, adding that OAWA gets calls from contractors wanting a certain woman to hire because she proved herself previously.
While convention suggests that older male workers have a bigger barrier to acceptance than younger males, Walsh said that some of the most seasoned men have proven to be “great mentors” for women in the OAWA.
Walsh says when she first started at the OAWA nine years ago, calls from working women with problems came weekly; today those calls only come every two or three months because women are proving they belong on jobsites and because their growing ranks support each other through hard times.
While mentorship is a key to the OAWA’s success, Walsh said the office reaches out to employers. “We hold networking sessions, roundtables, work with the unions…talk with contractors…”
When the OAWA was founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 579 and the province saw the initiative as a means of recruiting an untapped segment of the province’s labour supply.
Walsh says the OAWA has partnered with the Canadian Building Trades Union to develop offices in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia this year. In Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, it has partnered with the Atlantic Canada Regional Council of Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers. Funding is provided by the federal government under the Union Innovation Training Fund.
She says the OAWA isn’t modelled after another program. “It’s been trial and error and for the most part there hasn’t been much error.”