The journey women take to get into construction may be more indirect than the route taken by men. Erin Flanagan, who earned her Red Seal in carpentry from Victoria’s Camosun College in 2022, is one example. But the 37-year-old’s trades career is on a swift trajectory.
Not only is the dedicated hiker and animal-lover a project manager at Falcon Heights Contracting in Victoria, she has her own company, E. Flanagan Contracting and she’s also an on-call carpentry teacher at her alma mater.
“I love knowing everything and I love sharing it,” Flanagan says.
Growing up in Calgary, with an economist father, who put Flanagan and her brother to work on weekends at their rental property, Flanagan took out a wall with a crowbar when she was 12.
“It was very therapeutic,” she says with a laugh.
She was also a competitive sailor who moved from Calgary to Victoria.
Between training for the 2012 Summer Olympics and competing in many countries, Flanagan earned her biochemistry degree and then worked at the University of Victoria as a grant-funded research assistant for several years.
Job security and salary were not great and soon the prospect of going to the lab every day and doing the same experiments lost its appeal. Seeing a finished product, and the satisfaction it brought, was rare.
Always fond of working with her hands, doing jobs such as repairing her boats and building fences, Flanagan decided to enrol in Camosun College’s six-month, full-time carpentry foundation course in late 2016, the first step in the Red Seal process.
“When you’re framing outside, throwing up walls, it’s a great feeling,” she says.
The idea to become a carpenter had been seeded when Flanagan bought a 1918 single-family home in Victoria, with the plan to rezone the property and build a duplex. Taking the Camosun course would allow Flanagan to get up to speed and learn to use tools in a safe environment.
As she progressed through the full program, she was thinking about where she would like to work.
“I wanted to do custom residential. I wanted to learn to do everything and not get pigeon-holed,” Flanagan says.
She also wanted a company that was small enough where you get to know your co-workers, but large enough so that you weren’t always working with the same crew.
Flanagan began researching Victoria-area companies and noticed a couple classmates were wearing Falcon Heights Contracting hoodies. She decided the custom homebuilder would be a good fit, so she contacted Dave and Joelle MacKenzie.
After an interview in August 2017, she started as an apprentice with Falcon Heights the next month, as the company’s first female employee.
“We made the right decision to bring her on board,” says Dave. “We had her working with our foundation and framing team and she really shone.”
Flanagan has been a great mentor for the two other women now working at Falcon Heights, where staff can number from 16 to 25.
While working, Flanagan began planning the duplex she intended to build on her property. By 2020, her future home was taking shape. With her training and work experience, she put herself in charge of the duplex build, where Falcon Heights foremen provided valuable mentorship.
But a back injury slowed Flanagan; she needed three weeks of bed rest and she still cannot work with tools, which brought her to another crossroads.
Since May 2022, she’s been a project manager with Falcon Heights, filling in for an employee on sabbatical.
Dave says Flanagan’s days as a biochemist are serving her well, because her data entry abilities are excellent. Her tech skills are superb. And Flanagan’s computer drafting abilities are so honed, she can do the work onsite and eliminate the need for designers.
“It’s changing how the whole package is coming together,” says Dave.
Also in 2022, Flanagan contacted one of her Camosun instructors, asking if she could occasionally teach. “I wanted to bring all the things I didn’t learn in fourth year, that I learned on the job,” Flanagan says.
In school, students learn in isolation, but onsite, all aspects work simultaneously.
Building her duplex opened her eyes to concerns such as when a small change by an engineer can bring a cascade of alterations and extra costs to a project.
“Teaching the foundations class is always loads of fun,” says Flanagan, who is on the substitution-instructor list for the carpentry department and Women in Trades Sampler.
At her own company, in addition to weekend fencing jobs and other side work, Flanagan is taking on a challenging project west of Victoria, in a wilderness area near Shirley, where a Girl Guide camp is being built.
Her transition from academia to the trades has given Flanagan acute insight into the demands of carpentry. The eight weeks of study in her fourth year were harder than her eight months in fourth year biochemistry. And carpenters can quickly do very complicated math on the fly, unlike university graduates, she says.
But, she’d like to see the work culture become a little less toxic and user-friendly.
“We’re not taught how to learn on the site, when and how to ask questions,” she says.
As well, hand-washing stations, which have been mandated for several years, aren’t common. More outdoor toilets would be nice too.
“The changes I’m trying to promote are not just for women,” Flanagan says.
As for encouraging inclusion in jobs like carpentry, Flanagan recommends new entries do their research when seeking a supportive employer.
“There’s hundreds of contractors in Greater Victoria, all with different company cultures. You can find one where you fit in.”