Two hundred and seventy female high school students received a hands-on introduction into the possibilities of the skilled construction, industrial and automotive trades at the brand new Conestoga Skilled Trades Campus in Cambridge, Ont. recently.
At the annual Jill of All Trades event on May 31, some of those students operated heavy equipment machinery, while others welded piping, installed drywall, repaired masonry or tried their hand at woodworking.
“It wasn’t, and never is, a case of the students simply listening to an instructor,” says the college’s Jill of All Trades director Rosanne Hessian.
Launched and initiated by Conestoga in 2014 and trademarked a few years ago, Jill of All Trades is a day-long educational fair with workshops and guest speakers designed to introduce Grade 9 to 12 female students into the benefits of a future in skilled trades and apprenticeships, primarily in Red Seal trades.
Conducted in partnership with 12 school boards in the southwestern Ontario area, the event featured 18 different hands-on-workshops in the construction, industrial and motive power sectors.
In the months-long planning lead-up to the event, the school boards were sent descriptions of the workshops which the students reviewed and then ultimately pre-registered for three.
The workshops were conducted by college faculty members, with the assistance of apprentices, sponsor volunteers and community tradespeople, says Hessian.
Beginning the day was a short primer on safety, including providing the students with personal protection equipment. They were also given T-shirts in distinctive orange and blue colours, which are the logo colours of Jill of All Trades.
While Conestoga hosted the event, set the agenda, lined up the instructors and resource personnel, the participating school boards selected which students got to participate. There is always a wait list, which means there is more student demand than the college can accommodate.
Counting the students, faculty members, apprentice mentors, business employee staffing booths and volunteers, there were probably 500 people in attendance, she says.
The keynote speaker was HGTV host Mandy Rennehan, also known as The Blue Collar CEO, and founder of Freshco, a full-service reconstruction and retail maintenance firm operating across Canada and the eastern U.S.
“We saw the need,” says Hessian, on why Conestoga launched Jill of All Trades in 2014.
In that first year 110 students took part and there were three workshops. Since then the program has expanded, gone national and may soon go international.
Through an active outreach initiative aimed at colleges offering skilled trades programs, six Jill of All Trades events were hosted across Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia in 2022.
By 2026, Jill of All Trades is expected to expand to 25 institutions across Canada, delivering more than 70 events specifically tailored to meet the employment needs of the geographic areas those colleges serve.
An example would be the extensive employment needs of the mining industry in northern Ontario, she says.
“We recognized that there was a need to promote women in skilled trades and to provide opportunities for young women to experience skilled trades. A network of community (college) partners will lead a movement that empowers young women to make informed career choices.”
Of course, all of those colleges were and are promoting skilled trades pathways for young women, but it was on an independent standalone basis.
“Jill of All Trades brings all of our communities together, across Canada. We’re all delivering the same message.”
Conestoga is also in the process of reaching out to community colleges in the U.S. and potential sponsors there are very interested in promoting women in skilled trades.
Jill of All Trades could not exist if it wasn’t for its network of North American, national, provincial and local sponsors, says Hessian.
Describing the May 31 event as “a fun and exciting day,” the college’s dean of trades and apprenticeship Suzanne Moyer, said it was also an opportunity to showcase the Skilled Trades Campus to the students who may be attending there in a few years.
Just opened last fall on Reuter Drive adjacent Highway 401, the first phase of the campus features a 29,914-square-metre building comprised of shops and labs.
“We expect to have 500 post-graduate students and 2,800 apprentices in the coming academic year.”
An official opening has been planned for Nov. 1, but details are still being hashed out, says Moyer.