When Daina Cobb’s job running the office of a chartered boat on the Toronto Harbour stopped paying sales commissions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt like an opportunity to realize a long-held dream.
Her old job wasn’t enough to pay the bills anymore, Cobb says. So the mother of two took the plunge. In February 2021, she founded Screw It Contracting — a tongue-in-cheek name suggested by her 90-year-old grandmother — and set out on her own as a general contractor.
“My passion has always been building,” she says.
She discovered that vocation more than two decades ago, when she stumbled on a woodworking workshop in the garage of the condo building she was living in at the time. She was immediately hooked, she says.
“I started buying lumber from Home Depot,” she says. “I’d be down there for hours at a time.”
The next thing she knew, she was building TV stands, bookcases, spice racks and armoires for family and friends. She’d been toying with the idea of starting her own business for years, she says. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she finally did.
“My kids were old enough at that point for me to be able to go off and kind of start up this passion of mine,” she says. “And so that’s what I did.”
Service-sector job disruption is spurring more women to join the skilled trades
As many women rethink their careers amid the labour market upheaval wrought by the pandemic, some are flocking to a traditionally male-dominated sector: the skilled trades.
Women made up nearly 54 per cent of pandemic-linked job losses, despite accounting for just 47 per cent of pre-COVID-19 employment, according to Statistics Canada. That’s because in restaurants, salons, hotels and child-care centres, female workers held many of the lower-paying, people-facing jobs that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 restrictions, research has shown.
In the hospitality industry alone, women held a whopping 65 per cent of the jobs lost. And many of those who, like Cobb, remained employed still saw their hours or pay reduced.
But as the economy revives, more women are leaving their old service-sector jobs to become electricians, plumbers or carpenters, embracing high-paying trades where they’ve always been woefully underrepresented.
Michelle Crispe, a former personal trainer and nutritionist who started Crispe Design and Construction in 2018, says she has taken on three more female team members since December 2020. All of them left or scaled back service-sector jobs that were heavily impacted by COVID-19 protocols, according to Crispe.
“They have told me … that for quite some time they’ve been thinking of making a change,” she says. The pandemic was the catalyst, she says.
At Industry Training Authority BC (ITA), a Crown corporation that oversees skilled trades development in British Columbia, Shelley Gray says she’s already seeing an uptick in the number of female enrolments in training programs for trades where women usually make up a tiny percentage of apprentices. In the first six months of 2021, registrations from women over the age of 30 were up three per cent compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic struck, she says.
“I think people see it as an opportunity to find sustainable employment in well-paying careers that have rebounded and done well through the pandemic,” she says.
Gray is hoping others will come to see the skilled trades that way. ITA is planning a marketing offensive this fall that’s specifically targeted at women and other groups who’ve been hard-hit by the service-sector job losses.
Good pay and hands-on training
The prospect of good pay without having to invest time and money in a university or college degree is undoubtedly part of the allure of a career in the skilled trades.
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Men with a university degree saw their earnings grow a mere six per cent between 2005 and 2015, compared with 14 per cent for those in the trades, a 2017 study by Statistics Canada shows. And men with apprenticeship training were making nearly $73,000 a year in 2015, seven per cent more than those with college diplomas ($68,000). In Saskatchewan, they managed to out-earn even bachelor degree holders, bringing home around $86,000 a year compared to $84,000 a year for those with a degree.
As of the end of 2020, the high-end pay for electricians working as contractors in Canada was $52.08 an hour, data from the Job Bank shows. That works out to just under $108,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek. For carpenters working as contractors, the high end of the pay range was $45.45 per hour, or nearly $95,000 per year.
In trades that have traditionally been dominated by women, on the other hand, the pay range is considerably lower. For a hairstylist, for example, hourly wages ranged from a high of $25 to as little as $11.55, according to Job Bank data.
For Crispe, the pivot to general contractor also brought more financial stability.
“(Pay) for anyone who’s ever been in nutrition and personal training, it’s kind of like the stock market — pretty erratic ups and downs. There’s a lot of uncertainty, sometimes month to month, a lot of cancellations,” she says.
Being a contractor requires being entrepreneurial, but the work keeps coming, she says.
Her business, which has been specializing in tree and outdoor playhouses as well as backyard renovations, quickly took off after a real estate agent friend tapped her for a larger project and her client raved about Crispe’s work on social media.
Less than four years after starting her company, her income has nearly tripled, she says.
Cobb, who started in February, also says she’s been working non-stop, with her business growing through referrals with virtually no advertising.
And both Crispe and Cobb started out without going back to school. Cobb had the training from the woodworking workshop, plus 20 years of experience building furniture. Crispe says she had learned all the basics from her father, whom she describes as a “true Renaissance man” who could do anything from fixing cars, to plumbing, framing and drywall installations.
For trades that require apprenticeships — and for anyone who wants to attend a formal program even if it’s not required — most of the training usually happens on the job, says Gray.
“That’s why it’s really important to have strong mentors, a really good employer that can set you up so that you can make sure you’re getting the full scope of exposure to the work within that trade,” she says.
Apprentices then usually attend a few weeks of technical training at a provincial training provider, she adds. Tradespeople who achieve the Red Seal certification can work anywhere in Canada.
And there are plenty of grants and other financial incentives for those pursuing a career in the trades and for employer sponsors that can help alleviate the costs of training, Gray says. Many funding opportunities are directed specifically at women, she adds.
The skilled trades shortage only got worse in the pandemic
Job vacancies across Canada hit a record 731,900 between April and June, according to new data from Statistics Canada. That was up nearly 26 per cent from the same period in 2019 (the agency paused data collection in 2020).
In the skilled trades, a shortage that was already acute before the pandemic is getting even worse, Gray says.
The rate of unemployment among apprentices spiked in the pandemic, reaching 29 per cent, compared with nine per cent before the health emergency, a survey by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum found.
But the pandemic-fuelled renovation boom, along with a slew of federal and provincial infrastructure projects, means demand for tradespeople quickly came back, Gray says.
It doesn’t help that many in the sector are expected to retire in the next few years. In a recent report, RBC estimated 700,000 skilled tradespeople would hang up the hard hat by 2028.
“Canada will face a shortage of at least 10,000 workers in nationally recognized Red Seal trades (within five years) — a deficit that swells tenfold when 250 provincially regulated trades are included,” the bank warned.
'I wanted to flip the contracting industry on its head'
Both Cobb and Crispe say they didn’t just want to be contractors, they wanted to do it their own way.
“For a long time there’s been things missing in the trades and in the contracting business,” Crispe says.
Cobb says her own experiences outsourcing home projects she didn’t have time to take on herself gave her ideas for what she could do differently.
“I was very frustrated with not getting calls back and people showing up late, people coming and doing a couple of hours work and then leaving and coming back to the next day,” she says.
“I wanted to kind of flip the contracting industry on its head.”
Cobb says she only takes on one customer at a time. She also provides a detailed contract laying out expectations and obligations, as well as the client’s rights under the Ontario Consumer Protection Act.
She’s also happy to take on smaller projects with a limited budget, she says.
“It doesn’t take that much time to do the smaller job and then you build great customer relationships,” she says.
Both Cobb and Crispe say clients have been very responsive to having a female contractor.
“Most of my subcontractors are male and they’ve been really supportive with me and really great to work with,” Cobb adds.
But, she says, being female in the contracting business still attracts a lot of attention.
“I’m driving to a big truck and/or if I’m operating tools, I get looks,” she says.
“It’s all shock and disbelief and it kind of makes me giggle a bit.”