In the 21st century, we have seen a steady break down of gender barriers in the workforce. Women are going into traditionally male jobs, and men are migrating into ones that were seen as traditionally female. There is one major sector however where this shift to modern ideals is lagging. I am speaking, of course, of the skilled trades.

In 1993, Jules Lewis enrolled in a trades program at George Brown College. Two decades later, she has returned to George Brown to teach. Unfortunately, the story of women in the trades has not advanced nearly as much in the intervening decades as we might have hoped.

"When I was a trades student at George Brown College, I was the only woman in my class," says Lewis. "Based on the size of the class I was about 8 percent, and that's still about the same percentage we have now."

Women are a necessity in the industry

The need to correct that breakdown is about more than just equality, it's about community representation and economic necessity. "A lack of women in the trades is a problem," says Denise Devlin-Li, Chair of the School of Apprenticeship and Skilled Trades at George Brown. "At the very least it's a problem just from an economic and workforce perspective. We have this impending shortage of skilled trade workers, and if you're only appealing to half the potential workforce there's just not going to be enough people to do the work."

Recruiting women and other underrepresented populations into the trades requires outreach and education. People need to understand that the opportunities in the trades can be as rich as in any other field. "There are good salaries in this work," says Devlin-Li. "There are also jobs and opportunity. A trade can take you travelling internationally and you can move up into construction management programs. There are more avenues and pathways for advancement than there ever were before."

Eliminating bias and changing the landscape

But recruiting is only half of the equation. The other half is changing the biases within society and on the job sites themselves. Fortunately, that’s beginning to happen. "Recruiting women into trades training doesn't do much good if we can't place them afterwards," says Lewis. "The good news is that the old guard is retiring and the next generation is coming into power with different attitudes. Workers from diverse backgrounds have a right to a respectful workplace."

As for outreach, George Brown is actively working to encourage young students and working women looking for a career change to explore the many benefits of a job in the skilled trades.  "We have a number of programs that encourage underrepresented groups to consider the trades," says Devlin-Li. "We have one post-secondary program that is specifically all about finding the trade that's right for you."

History has shown that the women who do make that leap usually thrive. The big job now is showing women that there is indeed a place to land. "Once we get our 8 percent (enrolled), they tend to do pretty well," says Lewis. The school offers a variety of support resources to help their female students make the right decision for long-term gain. "The women who are in our program don't just fall into it. They've given it a lot of thought and done a lot of research. By the time they get into the program, they're already well-prepared and committed."

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