By Tracy Hanes
The Industry Does Not Have To Look To Far To Solve The Trades Shortage
While Jane Almey knew there would be many occupational paths for her as a civil engineering graduate, never in her wildest dreams did she imagine a career as a construction manager on high-rise building sites.
“Sitting in the office all day, every day, wasn’t going to be for me,” says Almey, owner/partner in Bluescape Construction Management. “I like the excitement and constant changes that come with construction. Every day is about problem-solving, and the industry is so variable that every day is new and exciting.”
Her five-year co-op program at the University of Waterloo had far more men than women. Ten to 15 years ago, she was often the only woman on jobsites, except for the occasional architect, interior designer, consultant or cleaner. “Thankfully that has changed and we are starting to see more women in the trades, such as drywall, taping, painting and landscaping.”
But change isn’t happening fast enough. Women are still under-represented; of 126,000 people in construction trades in Ontario, only 3,200 are women. Those working in the field say more needs to be done to promote jobs in the trades to female students in high school and to provide more support and mentorship. They also find they still have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts do.
However, some companies are embracing women in the trades. In the past two years, Eagleview Construction in the Kitchener-Waterloo area has hired three Conestoga College graduates: Kaylee Cleghorn, 23, a carpenter; Natalie Wiersma, 20, a junior carpenter; and skilled labourer Emily Doherty, 27.
Doherty spent weekends in Owen Sound as a young girl “building projects in the woods with my family,” but says she didn’t have the opportunity or couldn’t envision a career path in construction at the time. Instead, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and ended up working in Los Angeles, producing events and working as a talent wrangler on film sets. “But it wasn’t my inner me,” she says.
When the pandemic brought her back to Canada, Doherty discovered Conestoga’s Women in Skilled Trades (WIST), a 34-week pre-apprenticeship carpenter general certificate program.
Cleghorn, meanwhile, grew up with a father who was hands-on with home projects, and she enjoyed renovation TV shows. She loved the WIST program so much that she followed it up with the college’s carpentry and reno technician program. She was the only woman on site when she was hired by Eagleview in 2019. “The men were welcoming. A bunch of them were walking on eggshells at first, but once they got to know me, they figured I’m just one of the boys.” She says she hasn’t encountered any obstacles on the job, but in Grade 11, her high school guidance counsellor told her it was too late for her to join any construction courses.
For her part, Weirsma came to WIST after studying for a Bachelor of Interior Design, but wanted to be more hands-on rather than sitting at a desk all day. “I’ve been with Eagleview a year and have been helping Kaylee
with framing. I ask her questions and she’s taught me a lot, and I’ve done a lot of trim work.” Even though she’s the tiniest person on her crew, Weirsma says her size hasn’t been a disadvantage. In fact, she can get into small spaces that her larger counterparts can’t.
“Everyone at Eagleview has been amazing, very patient and willing to teach you,” says Doherty. “I feel very lucky that I got in this kind of groove. Eagleview is proud of the people they hire and have built a good team. It’s nice to know they value their workers.”
Cleghorn is doing her apprenticeship to become a Red Seal-licensed carpenter, and in the future would like to teach the program she took at Conestoga. Red Seal is also a goal for Doherty and she’d like to find a way to incorporate her business background with carpentry.
Wiersma plans to return to Conestoga this fall to take the Construction Engineering Technology-Architecture program, as she’d like to combine office and on-site work, hoping it will be the mix she is looking for.
Finding steady work as a carpenter near her home in Perth has been more challenging for Meredith Toivanen. After studying architecture as an undergraduate but wanting to be more hands-on, the 32-year-old Montreal native took a design-build course at Dalhousie University, where she got experience in straw bale and alternative building, followed by studies at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont. After working as a carpenter’s helper in residential construction, she took the two-year Heritage Carpentry and Joinery program at Algonquin College.
Despite her diverse skills, Toivanen says it hasn’t been easy to find full-time work. She has done some timber framing and straw bale building, various renovation jobs and also worked at a stained-glass conservation workshop for three years. Although her boss was “a great guy,” she didn’t get the hands-on experience she hoped for. “When I communicated that, it wasn’t received well,” Toivanen relates. “It was, ‘You shouldn’t have to do that dirty work and you’re better at report writing.’”
While she is landing more project-based jobs as she makes additional local contacts, Toivanen has to supplement that with working at the post office. She says Perth has a college that teaches carpentry and a lot of graduates stay, making the job market competitive in her rural area. And it’s difficult to get hired without family or other connections, she notes.
“For a lot of smaller businesses, it’s easier and typical to hire someone who knows someone,” Toivanen says. Further, for older women and those who haven’t had exposure to building or jobsites prior, those attempting to break into the field might be labelled as “challenging” because they need questions answered or mentoring, she adds.
“We have got to make more women in the trades visible so other women can see them,” Toivanen says. “In my experience working with men and being the only woman, they are comfortable with me, but there is doubt. Men have a lot more confidence and can ‘fake it to make it,’ and that can be intimidating to women. Having a trades program is great, but if you can’t get an apprenticeship, you’re sunk.”
One project that has elevated awareness of gender inequality in the industry and the roles women can play is Reina, a mid-rise condominium in Toronto’s Queensway neighbourhood, featuring the first all-female development team in Canada. It’s been spearheaded by Sherry Larjani, founder of Spotlight Development and Taya Cook, Urban Capital’s director of development.
“When Taya came to me with Reina, I thought it was an amazing idea and a conversation that needed to happen,” says Larjani. “I didn’t think we’d get the feedback we did. I’ve been reached out to by so many young girls in school who see us as an example and see what is possible for them. It wasn’t hard at all to find capable women for our team, no matter what field they worked in. They had just never been talked about or celebrated.” (Bluescape’s Almey is one of the women on the Reina team.)
Stephanie Marton, 22, who holds a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Toronto, is an assistant superintendent in Mattamy Homes’ urban division. She is currently working on a three-building condo complex in North York where she is involved in every step, from the initial structural work through handing over keys to homeowners. She started working for Mattamy earlier this year and says she’s surrounded by a supportive team.
At her previous job, Marton was the only female on site for eight months. “That made my skin thicker,” she shares. Marton says her current supervisor at Mattamy is a mentor, urging her to go out of her comfort zone and let it be known that she’s a valuable member of the team. “I’ve been fortunate to have that and I hope any woman going into this industry has that type of mentor, that rock, who makes sure your voice is heard at the table. I try to be that rock for other women.”
“One unfortunate thing that happens on every single new jobsite is not so much the comments, but the shock you always see on the faces of people who are taken aback when realizing the woman is the actual project manager,” Almey says. “You just have to keep your head down and do your job, and once guys see you’re capable and know what you’re doing—‘Okay, she’s laid out the budget, laid out the schedule’—they are fine with it. But you definitely see surprise on their faces initially.”
Marton has been encouraged to see more women on her current jobsite, including drywallers, and says they quickly bond with each other. She makes a point to introduce herself. She is also a member of the Canadian Association of Women in Construction (CAWIC).
“I attended an event and I was blown away by one of the leader’s confidence and passion,” Marton says. “Organizations like this work and advocate for us. If I’m having a rough day at work, it helps to have an avenue that supports and connects women. The division I’m in was very male-oriented, but more female students are being hired.”
CAWIC embraces women in all sectors of the industry, including those in the trades, engineers, accountants, inspectors and office workers, and provides leadership, workshops and networking. In the past year, the organization’s membership has doubled to 200 and a western Canada branch has kicked into gear. CAWIC also offered a webinar this summer on how to start a woman-led construction company.
“There’s definitely an increase in interest and people are modernizing their attitudes,” echoes Acacia Ashick, CAWIC V.P. and a project coordinator for Urbancon. “More women are on sites in the trades, but there aren’t enough. I think the key focus should be on young women in high school.”
Ashick says CAWIC has recently partnered with Build a Dream, a national non-profit organization that advances diversity and inclusion efforts. Since forming in 2014 in Windsor, Build a Dream has delivered programs that help young women overcome barriers in finding careers in skilled trades, among other fields. The partnership will focus on high school students and will promote STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), including construction.
“Of course, there are partnerships with George Brown and other colleges (and CAWIC provides bursaries), but we need to get those at the high school level,” Ashick says.
Cleghorn wishes she’d known of more programs aimed at women in the trades when she was in high school. “I feel things aren’t advertised as well as they could be and if the industry did that, especially in high school, it would make a difference.”
Doherty believes social media can help raise awareness. She says a friend of hers, a former model, is a home DIYer and has a following on Instagram, and Doherty believes more young women would be interested in seeing female carpenters, etc. on social media.
Social media helped Wiersma get her job after she and some WIST classmates created Instagram accounts showcasing their work and followed several Kitchener-Waterloo businesses, including Eagleview. When she contacted them, she got an interview—and a job.
That kind of confidence is critical to both maintaining and growing numbers. Ashick says that while there are no statistics on how many women are leaving construction jobs and why, she has heard anecdotally that a lack of mentorship is one reason—and that some attitudes about construction and trades being men’s jobs still linger. She sometimes hears cat-calls on site, but what’s more frustrating is that she’s often ignored in meetings. Almey knows the feeling and notes a pet peeve-—that being when male clients address her male counterparts but not her.
“It’s frustrating to hear about the skilled trades shortage when the solution is simple,” Almey says. “A lot of women are more than happy to drive concrete trucks and pick up tools and work in plumbing, electrical and HVAC. You just have to seek them out. The industry is complaining it can’t find manpower, but you have to think outside of the box.”
Become a member of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.