April 9, 2007

More girls eye construction trade

Spending a few hours surrounded by teenagers is always a refreshing experience. They’re eager, lively, gregarious. And also, for someone my age, tiring.

I was lucky enough recently to spend the greater part of a day at Future Building 2007, an event in Ottawa that drew kids Grade 7 and up, who might one day consider a career in the construction trades.

The shortage of skilled trades is an old story in our industry, but looking around me at the Ottawa exposition, I got a sense that things are changing. There were lots of girls at the show, many, presumably, thinking about getting into construction.

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Korky Koroluk

I spoke to a dozen or more of them, and only a couple admitted they were there because it meant a day off from school. The others were thinking of things like carpentry, tile and terrazzo work, electrical work, the pipe trades, painting and glazing.

And I recalled a conversation I had about a decade ago with a woman cabinetmaker who spent quite a bit of time travelling around eastern Ontario talking with high school guidance counsellors, promoting the idea of women in the trades. She was frustrated because she found that counsellors, at that time, were usually encouraging girls to enter fields where women have traditionally served — mainly teaching or nursing.

Seeing the numbers of girls at the Future Building show, I’d say that has changed. Certainly, someone has suggested to all those kids that there are good careers to be had in construction.

Harry Lush was manning the booth operated by the Ontario Industrial and Finishing Skills Centre. He agreed that there has been an upsurge of interest among girls.

“Society is learning,” he said, “that it’s a mistake not to consider skilled trades when looking ahead for a career. The pay and benefits are good, and the work is satisfying.”

His booth had kids trying their hand at two trades: painter and decorator at one end of the booth, and glazier and metal mechanic at the other. And he said that more and more women are coming into the business, “especially in painting.”

But, he added, “they’re starting to get into glazing now, as well. It used to be that women avoided glazing because there was heavy lifting to do.

“Now, with all the lifting devices we have, if you can punch a few buttons and operate a joystick, you can lift just about anything, and today’s kids know all about buttons and joysticks.”

Harry also spoke with enthusiasm about the skills centre’s pre-apprenticeship program. It’s a comprehensive introduction to glazing for 20 people in Toronto and 20 more in Ottawa. It’s funded by the provincial government and costs the students nothing. All materials, tools, personal safety equipment and manuals are also free.

This is a 37-week program that includes some academic upgrading (if needed), a couple of weeks of health and safety training, 11 weeks of trade training followed by eight weeks working as an apprentice at a basic level, then an eight-week work placement.

“We expect the people entering the program to progress into a full-time apprenticeship,” Harry said. “But there is some weeding out, too.

“We find out who’s reliable, and who is likely to call in ‘sick’ on Monday morning, who can work with others, who has problems in a co-operative relationships, and who always has reasons for knocking off at noon a couple of times a week.”

Building a new and well trained workforce won’t be done in a day or a month or a year, and everyone working at the exposition booths knows that. There won’t be a flood of applications as a result of the three days Future Building ran in Ottawa.

“But down the line,” Harry said, “if we get five or six applications as a result of these three days, then we’ll have done our job. We’re not here today to recruit. We’re just planting the seeds.”

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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