New office opens in Edmonton to advance women to skilled trades

Click to play video: 'New Office to Advance Woman Apprentices opens in Edmonton'
New Office to Advance Woman Apprentices opens in Edmonton
Opportunities for Alberta women in trades are growing, with employers and advocates are working to make workplaces safer and more inclusive for all. Some women say the road to these careers has not been easy. But as Jaclyn Kucey explains, some women in trades hope to spark change for the next generation – Mar 8, 2024

A new Office to Advance Woman Apprentices (OAWA) for Alberta opened in Edmonton to mark International Women’s Day. The office aims to support and advance women to Red Seal certification in the skilled construction trades.

On Friday, Grade 9 students from Parkland School Division got to try their hand at some of the basics of the trade.

“I think this is some of the most fun I had in a while,” said one of the students, Tally Niven-Marcoux, who is hoping to one day make this a career. “If not carpentry, I’d probably look to do electrician work because that’s what my grandpa does.”

Lily Neufeld was another student taking part. She’s also looking at a future in trades.

“In my class, there’s only me and one other girl that actually went, and that’s out of 15 girls in our whole class. Which is sad because I feel like more girls need to try this kind of stuff because this kind of industry is more men-focused,” said Neufeld. “There needs to be a lot more women, I would say.”

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It’s the first OAWA in Alberta. A second office will open in Fort McMurray in June 2024 and another in Calgary next year.

For decades, Martina Melnyk dreamed of a career in trades.

“In school I remember that we were always put into home (economics) instead of the industrial education, where I always wanted to be,” said Martina Melnyk, a 3rd year electrician apprentice. “It didn’t matter how many times I asked.”

Despite her experience in hands-on work growing up on a farm, that rejection led her to other careers. But she persisted.

“I had probably sent out at least 30 resumes trying to just break into that (industry), to have somebody hire me as an apprentice, and I didn’t even get a call back, or an interview or anything,” said Melnyk.

Click to play video: 'Sherry Holmes on breaking barriers in skilled trades'
Sherry Holmes on breaking barriers in skilled trades

Now in her 40s, Melnyk is finally breaking through the barriers she’s faced. She’s going into her final year to earn a journeyperson certification.

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But like many, the journey has not been one without facing stereotypes and harassment.

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“I had had the phone hung up on me multiple times, or I had been turned away because I was a young girl,” said Nat Bak, a journeyperson welder and second year pipefitter. “They were like ‘Yeah, we don’t hire girls here. Yeah, no, we’re not interested in you.'”

Bak started her trades career in 2008.

“My very first shop I started in, I had one of the gentlemen ask me why I didn’t want to be an accountant or a teacher like his daughter,” said Bak. “He said ‘You should be one of those.’

“It was not my thing, not at all.

“We all get tired of the comments at times, but at the same time I refuse to throw in that towel because I’m like well I get to make a change for the next generation,” said Bak. “If I quit, we’re not going to be able to make that change and have more diversity, have more women, make it more inviting.”

After more than a decade working on the tools, she’s hanging up her stinger, welding helmet and hard hat to help educate and inspire younger generations.

Bak and Melnyk are alumni of the Women Building Futures (WBF) program in Edmonton.

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It’s been around for 25 years, and they’ve helped more than 3,000 women and gender diverse students find a career path in the trades.

Click to play video: '‘You Got This’ campaign supports women pursuing careers in the trades'
‘You Got This’ campaign supports women pursuing careers in the trades

WBF president and CEO Carol Moen said one of the things they do is work to connect students with companies committed to an inclusive workplace.

“In order to have a resilient career and in order to achieve economic security, women have to want to stay in those careers. So connecting them to that workplace that they’re going to feel safe and supported in is really important,” said Moen.

“We have an employer of choice program that we use with companies to have them self-access and certify with us that they are an organization, a company that is committed to an inclusive workplace.”

WBF works with 60 companies that commit to inclusive workplaces across Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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“It’s amazing the impact that an ally on a work team can have to the success of a diverse individual that is working as part of that team,” said Moen. “There’s a lot more work to do.”

“At the end of the day, anyone is absolutely capable of doing a job and getting that job done,” Bak said. “It’s a matter of being able to show up.”

Click to play video: 'International Women’s Day: Celebrating success, noting where progress is needed'
International Women’s Day: Celebrating success, noting where progress is needed

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