All the Right Tools
With a 90+ percent employment rate for grads, Women Building Futures delivers on the promise of its name
By Alison Brown and Cathy Miehm
AFTER 14 YEARS OF WORKING in retail, Nicole Gaulton was restless for change.
“I decided I was too young to work in retail the rest of my life, and I wanted to do something with my hands—not be in front of a computer all day,” says the 33-year-old Sherwood Park, Alberta, resident.
Her sister-in-law suggested she check out Women Building Futures (WBF), a non-profit organization offering introductory skilled trades training for women. “I went to an information session and was intrigued and interested right off the bat,” recalls Nicole. “So I applied for the program and, thankfully, I got in.”
Since she wasn’t at all sure which skilled trade would best suit her, Nicole opted for WBF’s Journeywoman Start program, which she began in January 2020.
“This is our flagship program,” says Brittany Nugent, WBF’s manager of communications. “Journeywoman Start exposes students to five or six different trades and offers a blend of hands-on skills training, academic readiness, safety awareness and certification, and more.”
This program is offered in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, and Fort McMurray.
“I woke up every morning excited to go to school,” says Nicole. “For someone who had no experience working with any sort of tools—other than, you know, a screwdriver—now I can say that I have used a mitre saw, a grinder, and I’ve done welding! That’s just mind-blowing.”
WHEN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC STRUCK last spring, WBF quickly pivoted to online training, and Nicole was able to successfully complete the remainder of her 17-week program.
“WBF staff went above and beyond to reach out and make sure we had the help we needed and were able to complete our training and able to get the most out of the program, de-spite the changes that had occurred,” she says.
Nicole didn’t let her new skills go to waste during several weeks of COVID-19 lock-down. She and her husband had recently purchased a 35-year-old home, and they used the time to embark on a full renovation. Nicole was excited to apply what she had learned about insulation, plumbing, electrical, demolition, and carpentry. Her experience with WBF has helped her understand the whole process of renovation.
When Nicole arrived at WBF, she thought she would ultimately choose a career in plumbing, instrumentation, or welding. But after getting hands-on experience in several trades, her new goal is to obtain a dual ticket as an electrician and instrumentation technician. She is well on her way to achieving that, since starting an electrical apprenticeship last spring.
Her advice to anyone interested in exploring a career in the trades: “Reach out to someone you know who works in the trades. Ask if you can job shadow, interview people, and do your research.”
SINCE 1998, ALBERTA’S WOMEN BUILDING Futures has been offering industry-recognized training for careers in the construction, maintenance, and transportation industries. “Last year, WBF celebrated 20 years of supporting women,” says Brittany. “In this time, over 2,300 women have graduated from our programs and have been able to move into careers that have allowed them to meet their goals. This is something we’re really proud of.”
WBF’s mission doesn’t end there. Its Edmonton training facility includes 42 units of affordable housing for students—18 are for women with children. This gives out-of-town students a chance to live where they learn. WBF has also created a wide tent, welcoming all transgender, nonbinary, and agender persons interested in a future in the skilled trades.
This total commitment to its students is what brought WBF to the attention of Ryan Timmermans, CLAC regional director, about 15 years ago. He was especially impressed by JudyLynn Archer, WBF’s tireless founding president and CEO.
“I was invited to one of the early graduations and will never forget hearing the students speak about what impact the program and JudyLynn had on their lives in very practical ways,” recalls Ryan. “The opportunity to access meaningful, well-paid work in construction was changing the lives of these women and their families. It was truly moving.”
Earlier this year, Ryan nominated JudyLynn for the prestigious Alberta Order of Excellence, the highest honour the province can bestow on a citizen. The nomination was accepted and she was among seven Albertans invested into the order on October 15.
“JudyLynn deserves commendation for the positive impact she has had on so many individuals, for opening doors, and helping to positively shift the conversation on women in construction,” Ryan wrote in his letter of nomination. “What she and the team at WBF have accomplished is remarkable.”
CLAC HAS BEEN A LONG-TIME supporter of WBF, and the two organizations have collabo-rated on many initiatives. These include
• building awareness about the opportunities for life-changing employment among women,
• generating buy-in among member contractors and employees for building inclusive workplaces,
• increasing accessibility to training for women living in rural and Indigenous communities,
• spreading the word throughout CLAC’s network about increasing women’s participation in construction,
• connecting women to employment opportunities on local projects,
• collaborating on innovative approaches to building employment readiness, and
• sharing the stories of women succeeding in the trades every day.
“In the early days, we worked to promote WBF among our contractors and other industry players to help raise their profile,” says Ryan. “We speak to their classes about construction, about CLAC, and about how unionized environments work.”
He believes that what is good for WBF is, ultimately, good for CLAC.
“WBF has helped to increase the level of awareness among women and in the construction industry,” says Ryan. “That has ultimately created more opportunity for women to enter into the skilled trades and find well-paid careers. This certainly aligns with CLAC’s work and goals, as attracting and developing skilled tradespeople is essential to maintaining a robust skilled workforce.”
A BROADER DIVERSITY IS GOING to be key as Canada’s skilled trades look to the future.
In Alberta alone, it’s estimated that 45,000 skilled workers will be retiring over the next decade. At the same time, new registrations into the Alberta apprenticeship system have dropped by 50 percent over the past few years.
Both federal and provincial governments, through myriad grants and subsidies, are encouraging women and other underrepresented groups to step up and help address a looming shortage of tradespeople.
WBF’s role is going to be even more vital in the coming years. Part of Brittany Nugent’s job is to ensure women know they have the option to choose a career in the skilled trades.
“My favourite part of my role is getting to know our students and graduates and sharing their stories with our stakeholders and the general public,” she says. “I know, for myself, construction trades were never presented as an option for me when I was younger.
“But times are changing and women are excelling in these careers. We just need to talk about it more to encourage more women to explore the opportunities.”
Attracting Women to the Skilled Trades
The construction sector is one of Canada’s largest employers, but women account for barely five percent of skilled trades on job sites. That indicates a systemic problem but also an incredible opportunity.
BuildForce Canada warns that over 250,000 Canadian construction workers are retiring in the next 10 years—more than 20 percent of the current workforce. At the same time, the pool of available younger workers is shrinking.
Governments at all levels are offering grants to encourage young women and other underrepresented groups to launch careers in the trades. In 2018, the federal government committed $20 million to help increase the number of women in male-dominated trades.
The barriers to entry for women are well-known. There’s still not much encouragement for girls to take STEM-related classes in high school. This leads to fewer young women choosing to enter preapprenticeship programs. Among those who do pursue vocational training, many have a hard time finding mentors and employment sponsors, and they often have to deal with unwelcoming workplaces.
Preapprenticeship programs that provide women with flexible childcare, financial aid, and wraparound supports—from counselling to subsidies for equipment and boots—are starting to make a difference. So are employers and unions that shift workplace cultures and provide meaningful support for women.
Ground-breaking programs like WBF are being rewarded for the tangible difference they make. The Alberta government has committed $10 million over four years to WBF, which boasts a 90 percent or better employment rate for its grads. Those funds will be used to expand the program across the province, thereby creating more opportunities for women to enter the skilled trades.
COVID’S Impact at WBF
“We’re continuing to work alongside our alumni to support their job search,” says Brittany Nugent, WBF’s manager of communications. “We also have a Warehouse Express program that’s been launched and we’re hoping to launch other programs by the end of the year.”
Warehouse Express introduces students to the daily duties of a warehouse worker and will give them the introductory skills required to successfully enter the industry. Warehouse workers are typically responsible for receiving and assembling orders, operating pallet jacks and/or reach trucks, and packing pallets for delivery.
WBF has made several adjustments to protect students and staff during the pandemic:
• Programs have moved to online delivery, where possible.
• Limited classes and people are allowed in the training facility, and several safety protocols have been implemented to minimize potential risk.
• WBF is still accepting applications for the Journeywoman Start program in Edmonton and supporting prospective students through their application for future classes.
• WBF continues to focus on providing academic supports for prospective students and career supports for graduates.
Projects Where Some WBF Grads Are Working
1. Inter Pipeline Project
2. Suncor and Syncrude in Fort McMurray
3. Northwest Refinery
4. Anthony Henday Highway
5. Commercial and civil projects across central Alberta
6. Enoch school construction
Do you enjoy streaming your favourite tunes or watching the latest movies online? You can thank a woman who foresaw the future—in 1843.
The field of computer science, like the skilled trades and other traditionally male occupations, has long been dominated by men. But it was a woman who is considered to be the first computer programmer and visionary for what computers could do.
Ada Lovelace (1812–1851) was the daughter of the famous English poet Lord Byron. Her mother, Annabella, weary of her husband’s cheating ways, left a year into the marriage and moved to London to live with her parents, taking Ada with her. Byron never saw them again.
Ada’s interest in mathematics and science, already apparent as a child, broke with the gender norms of the time. She became a gifted mathematician and worked with Charles Babbage—the “father of computers”—on his Difference Engine, a cogwheel calculating machine, and later his Analytical Engine, the first design of a general-purpose computer.
In 1843, in a heavily annotated translation of a description of the engine by Luigi Federico Menabrea, an Italian mathematician and future prime minister of Italy, Lovelace included a way to calculate Bernoulli numbers. The algorithm is considered the first complete computer program, making her the first computer programmer, although some dispute her contributions to it.
What is undisputed is that while Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as primarily a machine for doing mathematical calculations, Lovelace saw further potential. She saw that the machine, if properly set up, could even be programmed to compose music.
“Supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition could be expressed and adapted within the Analytical Engine,” she wrote. “It might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
In essence, Lovelace foresaw that a machine that could manipulate numbers could be made to do not only mathematical calculations, but could follow a series of steps—a program—to do complex computation. And those numbers could be made to represent things like letters or musical notes. Her unique and farsighted insight into the potential of computers helped make possible what we all now enjoy every day on our devices.
Ada Lovelace Day, celebrated on the second Tuesday of October, was created in 2009 to commemorate her accomplishments in the field of computer science and the accomplishments of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Sources: historyextra.com, wikipedia.com, worldsciencefestival.com, britannica.com