Sarah Johnston was always interested in working with her hands.
Even as a child, she recalls spending her summers hammering nails or chiselling rock for the fun of it.
In high school, she took mechanics and enjoyed it, but was still unsure of what she wanted to do after graduation.
“I didn’t want to waste time in school if I wasn’t going toward something,” she says.
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Instead, she found work at the Victoria airport in baggage handling and later food services. But she always kept her eye on the want ads to see what employers were seeking.
“There’s always demand for welders,” she says. “There’s always demand for machinists.”
Then a friend told her about a 12-week program at Camosun College where she could try her hand at any number of disciplines to see what appealed.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to try welding before. I’ve never had the opportunity to try sheet metal fabrication before,” Johnston says. “So the fact that I was able to come in and do a week of each one, and cement what I was into, was the real hook.”
Financed through the Canada-B.C. Labour Market Agreement, the Industry Training Authority’s Women in Trades Training program at Camosun is part of a strategy to align women’s skills with the future needs of the workplace.
It allows about 75 women a year to explore everything from carpentry and automotive repair to welding and sheet-metal fabrication before deciding whether to enrol in a trades program or pursue an apprenticeship with an employer.
“We know that we have a skilled-worker shortage, and recruiting individuals is still a challenge,” says Olaf Nielsen, Camosun’s trades training and development co-ordinator. “The primary focus has always been [to recruit] young men, and I think today we’re recognizing that that recruitment strategy has to be more representative of our community demographics.
“Women are a significant portion of our workforce, but in trades they haven’t been targeted. I think we want to bring them to the table.”
The British Columbia Trade Occupations Outlook 2010-2020 reports that demand for tradespeople will outstrip supply by 2016 and that “there is an increasing need to educate and train labour force entrants.”
The report notes that women represent a “potential source of relatively untapped supply.” They accounted for only three per cent of the workforce in trades, transport and equipment operators in the 2006 census. “An increase in female representation would certainly bolster the supply side for trades occupations in British Columbia,” the report said.
Jayna Wiewiorowski, who co-ordinates the Women in Trades program at Camosun, says the students can move on to further training in a chosen trade or take an apprenticeship in an industry. “Camosun is obviously very well known for our trades training, [so] they have tremendous success finding work — either on or off the Island,” she says.
Camosun also offers a similar program to introduce the trades to aboriginal students — another sector of the population that is under-represented in trades, according to the B.C. Trade Occupations Outlook. “Again, we recognize that the representation is very low in trades,” Nielsen says. “So it’s just been a concerted effort to build awareness. ‘Here’s career pathways. These things might be of interest.’ ”
Nielsen says both programs are enjoying success, though a sluggish local economy has hurt at times. “Individuals are getting hired. Is everyone getting hired at this point? No.”
He says a resurgence in construction has led to increased recruiting for related trades. “Also, our metal trades — sheet metal and metal fabrication — we’re seeing some really positive signs there.”
As for Johnston, just four weeks into her program, the 25-year-old student was surprised to discover a passion for automotive repair.
On the first day of instruction in that trade, she and her classmates were divided into teams and told to strip and re-build a V-6 engine.
“Three to four of us to an engine,” she says. “Tore it completely down until you couldn’t do any more. Put it back together. That was our day.
“It was awesome.
“I had done mechanics in high school, but had no idea how much I’d love it. It’s been my favourite by far. It’s neat. You’re kind of learning something new about yourself and what your skills are.”