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Construction looks to meet demand for female mentors

Peter Caulfield
Construction looks to meet demand for female mentors

There’s a great demand for female mentors in the construction industry, but there aren’t enough of them to go around, says the president of the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC).

"According to a CAWIC survey, about half of female construction workers say they have no access to a mentor," says Lisa Brown.

To improve their access to mentorship, the Mississauga, Ont.-based organization is revitalizing its current mentorship program

"Until now we’ve been collecting applications from prospective mentors and mentees and trying to pair them up," Brown says. "But we have more mentees than mentors, which is a challenge for the program."

Brown says the association expects to relaunch its mentorship program sometime in the next 12 months.

Mentorship is important because, in a new work environment, young workers need to learn what she calls the informal rules of engagement of the work site.

"They find out quickly that the job site is not like school," she says. "To help them make the transition, they need someone who’s more experienced to show them the ropes."

A not-for-profit organization that was founded in 2005, CAWIC has a membership "in the mid-hundreds and a mailing list in the thousands."

"Most of our members are in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) in Ontario," says Brown. "But we plan to set up chapters around the country."

Emma O’Dwyer, vice-president market development and corporate affairs with The Matcom Group in Toronto, has been a CAWIC mentor for four years.

"I’ve mentored a total of six or seven women over the years," she says. "And I’m mentoring three right now."

O’Dwyer says she works with mentees in a number of ways: face to face, via email and conference calls.

"We discuss a variety of subjects," she says.

"They include challenges with male co-workers, what courses to take in college and which trade to go into. I’m also a shoulder to cry on when things get rough."

O’Dwyer says the construction job site is more accepting of women than it was when she was hired 18 years ago as a construction labourer for a summer job.

"It’s less of a guy’s culture than it used to be and it’s easier to prove yourself if you’re a woman," says O’Dwyer.

One of O’Dwyer’s recent mentees is Latifa Karimi, a BIM (Building Information Management) specialist in the Mississauga office of EllisDon.

"Emma was my mentor when I was writing my graduating thesis for my Bachelor of Technology degree," Karimi says. "She helped me to develop questions for a survey of women in construction."

She says the education system doesn’t prepare young women for the reality of the male-majority construction work site.

"At the beginning, I was shocked," Karimi says. "I wasn’t prepared at all and I had to figure out a lot by myself, without any support."

Rosemary Sparks, executive director of BuildForce Canada, says mentorship programs for both male and female young workers benefit the entire construction industry.

"It’s knowledge transfer that makes workers more productive in a relatively short time," she says. "In a skilled trade, 80 per cent of learning takes place on the job."

Sparks says one-quarter of a million workers in the construction industry will retire between 2015 and 2024.

"We need to do the best job possible of getting young people into the workforce and transforming them into seasoned, qualified journeypeople," she says.

"We know from surveys that millennials are looking for coaching and training, and the construction industry must offer it in order to compete with other industries that are looking for workers."

BuildForce’s mentorship program is a package of materials that was developed in 2010 with industry input to help employers implement their own program.

"It’s made simple, for all levels of time-availability, so employers can cherry-pick what’s best for them," Sparks says.

The mentorship program of SkillPlan, a B.C.-based developer of workforce development programs, is divided in to two separate courses.

The first is targeted at the mentee. The goal is to enable them to gain the most from verbal and practical instruction from the mentors with whom they are paired.

Skills covered are clear and collaborative communication and taking the lead in goal-setting for their learning.

The second course is targeted at the mentor. Skills transfer, including techniques for demonstrating, evaluating and providing feedback, are the focus of the course.

"Our mentorship programs are complementary to those of BuildForce, with whom we have a strong relationship," says SkillPlan CEO Kyle Downie.

"Our programs are aimed at apprentices and journeyworkers, and BuildForce’s program is aimed at employers."

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