Recruiting women into the skilled trades has become a little easier over the years, but providing workplaces where they can thrive is another story.
Thousands of B.C. women work in a wide variety of trades – for example as mechanics, painters, carpenters and electricians – and the trades schools are training more. But research shows that many are forced out before the completion of their apprenticeship or soon after. The female share of the skilled trades workforce is holding almost steady at three to four per cent.
We could list many reasons for the high dropout rate, but most of it boils down to a lack of support for women in the workplace and a resulting sense of isolation. The skilled trades apprenticeship system goes back a long time, with strong traditions and practices and a unique workplace culture. The culture can be discriminatory and harsh to people who don’t fit long-entrenched expectations. The attitude that “we’ve always done it this way” can be dangerously closed-minded. Our challenge in 2019 is to open our minds and create new workplaces that are inclusive, progressive, flexible and productive.
Why does workplace inclusion matter? First of all, B.C. is facing a skilled trades shortage. Not a labour shortage – a skilled trades shortage. There is plenty of labour out there: half of the population is women, but we have not been utilizing that immense pool of candidates for skilled trades work. Second, inclusion matters because all groups, including women, have an equal right to respect and opportunity on the job. Finally, inclusion matters because training costs money, and it makes no sense to train people and then send them to a toxic job site.
The B.C. Liberal government began to promote the potential benefits of trades careers for women in the mid-2000s. The B.C. NDP government is now tackling the more complex job of addressing workplace culture. For example, the government is supporting the BC Centre for Women in the Trades, which provides resources to employers and workers, non- union and union, including policies, strategies, workshops and training programs for both men and women in construction.
On a broader scale, the government is implementing a Community Benefits Agreement on major construction projects. The Agreement is built on the principle that B.C. residents, and not just construction company owners, should benefit from taxpayer-funded projects.
A single employer, BC Infrastructure Benefits Inc., will oversee hiring and working conditions on projects like the upcoming Pattullo Bridge Replacement. Contractors will retain the right to bring core employees on to the job. Additional hiring will give a fair chance to qualified women, Indigenous people and others from under-represented groups.
With equity in hiring under the Community Benefits Agreement, it is our hope that women will be present in sufficient numbers to reduce the sense of isolation and help change the workplace culture. Representatives of the building trades unions, many with women on their executive boards, will mediate contractor-employee grievances. And, not trivially, contractors will be required to provide such basics as washrooms for women.
Anti-union contractors have stated that they have always respected the role of women at work, and that the Community Benefits Agreement and the presence of union reps are just NDP-style complications. We would encourage these contractors to bid on the provincial government projects covered by the agreement, hire women under the prescribed process, and lead the way on the advancement of women at work.
Making the workplace more welcoming for women is good for everyone. Making allowance for child care arrangements or eliminating harassment will benefit men as well as women. Sometimes in the past, when one of us was the first woman on a jobsite, we’ve heard from men who said, ‘Hey, we’re glad you’re here, we’re hoping things will be better now.’ Most men don’t like nastiness on the job either.
The social objective of the BC Community Benefits Agreement is to build a more broadly-based construction workforce. The government, contractors and unions will need to work together to make this objective compatible with safety, productivity and on-budget delivery. It’s a big task, but we have the tools to succeed.
Lisa Langevin is a Red Seal electrician and President of the BC Tradeswomen Society.