Employment in this country’s electricity sector is no longer the exclusive domain of men, says the founder and executive director of Women of Powerline Technicians (Women of PLT).
Women are making strides in obtaining apprenticeships and securing employment. But they still have a long way to, says Lana Norton, the second female graduate from a powerline technician program in Ontario.
Canada’s electricity sector contributes more than $34 billion to the country’s gross domestic product and approximately 89,000 Canadians are employed in the energy sector trade and technical roles.
“And yet women only constitute about seven per cent of that workforce and female powerline technicians nationally represent less than five per cent of the available trade positions.”
Advancing the role and participation of women in the industry was the driving force for creating the non-profit organization in 2016, she says.
“I couldn’t see anyone behind me,” says Norton, a 2011 graduate of Cambrian College’s powerline technician course.
By that she means there were no other women in successive courses and that realization help provide the spark for creating Women of PLT.
“Women want to be powerline technicians because they enjoy being outside, working from heights and the pride which comes with installing infrastructure with their hands.”
Headquartered in Ottawa where Norton lives and works, the association is comprised of two chapters — one in that city and the second in Toronto where its far-flung members meet each year for an informal networking event which includes attending a baseball game at the Rogers Centre.
In the four years the association has been in existence it has grown to 100 members who represent utilities and contractors across Canada, some in the United States, and a handful overseas. They stay connected through an electronic newsletter, an Instagram platform, and a 24/7 online accessible peer group.
“Mostly word of mouth,” says Norton, when asked how women in the industry learned about the association.
But more than just networking is involved. In partnership with Utilities Kingston, it has established a $1,000-bursary for students who are enrolled in a powerline technician program with a registered Ontario college.
It is open to both men and women, but to be considered a student must submit a 1,000-word maximum essay on the benefits of a diversified workforce in the electricity sector.
“We’re so excited Utilities Kingston was our first establishing partner for the bursary,” says Norton, explaining the bursary’s purpose is to get students thinking about how diversity contributes to the services utilities provide.
And diversity means not just increasing employment opportunities for women, but also for racialized minorities, aboriginals, and other marginalized groups, she stresses.
Plans for a second bursary are underway and details will be released in the fall, she says.
Last year the association also signed on to Natural Resources Canada’s Equal 30 which is designed to advance gender equality in the energy sector by 2030.
And earlier this year it also partnered with Skills Ontario and Kickass Careers to promote apprenticeships for youth in fields less high profile than easily identifiable ones such as plumbers, welders, and electricians.
“This is where we see great careers such as meter technicians, substation electricians, powerline technicians, systems operators, and utility arborists.”
A planned Skills Ontario educational fair in Toronto, which would have included a Women of PLT booth, had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. So, it was presented online and one of the highlights was a talk by a recent female powerline technician graduate, she says.
Asked about her own entry into the industry, Norton says: “electricity always made sense to me.
“I didn’t have to see each closed or open switch to understand if the power was going to be on or off within a circuit. I knew I wanted to be in electrical and working from heights and outdoors appealed to me. Once I knew that, powerline was the only option.”
There were other considerations as well. She became a mother at the age of 20 and entering an apprenticeship meant that she could earn an income, attend school and not take on debt.
That entry was not without challenges, although Norton downplays the struggles she had to overcome, notably failed attempts to land an apprenticeship.
“I kept getting rejection letter after rejection letter.”
When one firm said it only hired powerline technician graduates as apprentices, Norton moved from her Ajax home to Sudbury to enroll in Cambrian’s powerline technician course. At the time, it was the only college in Ontario offering such a program.
After graduating she obtained employment as an apprentice powerline technician with a distribution company in Ottawa. “I climbed poles and worked from heights to construct and repair overhead distribution lines.”
Two years later she became a field operator, a position which required responding and investigating lost power occurrences and then restoring power. “I describe my time in that role as responding to everything that goes bump in the night.”
From there she took on her current role as a field technician where she supports the identification, development and implementations of construction projects in the electricity sector and advises on technical issues to ensure those projects are completed safely, on time and on budget.