As the first female executive director of the Manitoba Building Trades (MBT), Tanya Palson has set her sights on engaging with stakeholders and changing perceptions about working on the tools.
“We really need to move past the way we have traditionally thought about the construction worker overall – as something that is low skilled and as a default career for people, mostly men, who weren’t excelling in secondary school,” she says. “Everyone can relate to wanting things built well. What they aren’t putting together is that it’s the technical knowledge and skills of the on-the-tools tradesperson that delivers on that.”
She maintains increasing public awareness about the work that the trades are doing would help.
“I think a lot of people’s exposure to the construction worker is what they are seeing on their drive home, like a road crew. They aren’t thinking about the millwright or industrial welder on the inside of generator at a hydroelectric project. If more people were aware of the skill and scale of the trades, we might see more parents even promoting the trades to their kids earlier.”
Palson took the helm of the MBT in early March. She’s worked in a variety of roles at the organization for several years and helped in the design and development of the Manitoba Building Trades Institute.
She’s responsible for advocating for the unionized skilled trade professionals represented by the MBT and creating labour partnerships on major projects. She’ll also lead advocacy efforts around community benefits agreements.
Palson grew up in rural Manitoba around plenty of farmers and working class people. She came to the MBT with a background in Indigenous education policy and specialization in marketing. She worked in a communications and policy role and began taking on more and more with the organization.
She hopes to bring a diverse perspective towards building upon the history of the MBT and believes the more varied experiences and points of view there are at the table, the better the outcomes.
Palson hasn’t focused on the fact she is the first woman at the helm.
“In my case, I worked my way up through the organization and I didn’t really think about being the first anything. I’m just the right person for the job right now. But I can see from the broader perspective of our industry, and unionized labour, that it’s a significant sign that things are moving in the right direction.”
Initially, her aim will be to talk to and collaborate with project partners, owners and contractors.
“When we look at public projects funded by taxpayers, these need to have the highest levels of skilled trade professionals on the site to avoid deficiencies and schedule overruns. When it comes to the ICI sector in Manitoba, the building trades have the most reliable access to skilled trade professionals, and we pull more than our weight in diversity recruitment, training and workforce development.”
She will focus a little less on the differences and more on making projects work.
“Sometimes I think we forget that at the end of the day we want the same thing, to get the work done and done well.”
Palson says it’s an important time for the construction industry right now because it is on the cusp of a shift towards greener infrastructure and is up against the impacts of climate change.
Because the roots of the MBT are with the labour movement, she considers it her responsibility to advocate from the worker perspective, whether a worker is unionized or not.
Palson also intends to stay engaged on the apprenticeship file and promote fair wage schedules for the industry.
“I’m always looking at things through a worker lens and I don’t always see the people on the tools get the credit that is due for what they are producing. Even so, I know that our members are so proud when they see the work complete at the end of a build. That pride rubs off on me and keeps me motivated.”
Palson has plenty of advice for women considering a career in construction.
“Take some time to learn about the different segments of the industry and where would be a good fit with your lifestyle,” she says. “This could have a big impact on the trade you want to enter.
“There are real barriers depending on the type of jobs you are on. Schedules and locations can make it difficult on women who have kids or are planning to have kids, especially if they are the primary parent.”
However, it is a great industry with awesome pay and benefits, she notes, as well as a pension for those in a union.
“We see a lot of women enter as a second career. There is a lot of demand and training is typically subsidized by provincial government or federally funded programs,” says Palson. “Once you have your Red Seal, there are opportunities to advance fairly quickly off the tools into management or supporting roles that can provide something close to a 9 to 5 type of schedule.”