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Program shows Ottawa-area high school girls ‘there is no gender for the trades’

Grant Cameron
Program shows Ottawa-area high school girls ‘there is no gender for the trades’

With more than 100,000 construction workers needed over the next decade in Ontario alone, efforts are underway to encourage more youth, underrepresented groups and women to take up the skilled trades.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), in concert with the Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB) and the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), decided to do its part, introducing a novel, five-week pilot program that allowed girls in Grades 9 and 10 to get some experience in what it was like to be a welder.

“The girls did not have any prior experience and no past training,” explains Farhana Moshira, OYAP lead at the OCDSB. “Our instructor provided all the training and PPE required and then the girls learned how to cut the metal, how to weld safely and how to use all the protective gear that’s required to ensure they’re safe.

“They started with zero knowledge and by the time they were done they were very comfortable with the work.”

The course was run after school between 4 and 7 p.m. every Wednesday at Sir Guy Carleton Secondary School on Centrepoint Drive in Nepean. Students in the course were transported from their home schools across the city to Sir Guy and taken home afterwards. All costs for the pilot were funded by OYAP.

Fifteen girls participated and there was one instructor and a couple of assistants. All spaces in the course were booked in 48 hours.

“It created a huge buzz, that’s for sure,” says Moshira.

The course was modelled after a Women in Steel program that is offered by the CWB for adult women.

“We wanted to do a replica of it and make it more fun for students who have no prior training and no experience,” notes Moshira. “We collaborated with the CWB to get their guidance so we could make it unique.”

In the course, students participated in exercises such as cutting and welding steel to give them an idea of what it would be like in the actual trade.

“They made flowers, they made their own nameplate, and they did several other projects,” says Moshira.

“We didn’t want to confine the girls to one project. The instructor gave them full liberties but was there to support them.”

The plan was to get them interested in the trades but not overwhelm the students. Authorities also wanted to make sure it was fun. Instructors kept a close watch to ensure compliance.

Judging by comments from the participants that were collected by the school board, the program was a success.

A student attending South Carleton High School wrote that “the opportunity to get together and learn a new trade with girls my age was an amazing experience, and I’d definitely recommend it to other girls.”

A participant in the course from Lisgar Collegiate Institute said the welding camp was truly an amazing experience.

“I think that it’s so great being able to meet new people, as well as have the opportunity to learn about a new interest that I would never have had the chance to otherwise.”

The school board opened the course to girls in Grades 9 and 10 because it’s important to introduce the trades to youth early in life so they know they’re a possible career choice and can plan appropriate courses in Grades 11 and 12.

According to Moshira, stereotyping still exists in the trades, particularly regarding women and gender biases need to be challenged because there are so many great career opportunities for women.

“It has always been a male-dominated industry. It’s changing but we still have a lot of work to do. It’s not like an overnight change. That’s why we believe that there is no gender for the trades. It should be open to anyone. This was just a starting point.”

The course was such a success students are asking when the next one will launch. The school board is looking at offering similar courses next year.

“When you do this kind of a big project, there’s a lot of planning involved,” notes Moshira. “We are actually thinking about doing one both semesters and offering them to not just female students, but opening it for all students, or one for Grade 9 and 10 and one for Grades 11 and 12. We need lots of planning to do it successfully.”

The school board also has a Try a Trade Week coming up in April. A group of students in Grades 8 to 11 will be going to a union hall to try a trade for a week.

The board is also planning for representatives from Skills Ontario to visit the schools to provide students — both male and female — with information about the trades.

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