Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

An untapped resource

Part of the solution to the construction industry’s labour shortage may be supporting women in the trades
Krista Humphrey left the "pink ghetto" to become a tile setter. Photo by Dave Steers.

The 2010 Olympics; employment opportunities in Alberta; the exodus of baby boomers from the work force — these are just three of the factors cited when the cost of construction escalates in B.C.

On a recent Global TV newscast, it was reported that skilled workers from Jamaica have been flown in to assist with the construction of Kelowna's new five-lane floating bridge. “We searched across Canada,” said the contractor, “but we couldn’t find the labour we needed.”

Flying workers in from Jamaica is not a long-term solution to the labour crunch that B.C. is experiencing. But there is a largely untapped resource that could keep construction projects on schedule, and keep workers in the province: women.

“The percentage of women in the trades has not changed much in the last 20 years,” says Meg Herweier, a former BCIT carpentry instructor who is currently the apprentice training coordinator for the Washington Marine Group in Vancouver. Overall participation of women in the construction trades has remained at around three per cent for the last decade. “It is discouraging to find that there have not been significant strides made here,” says Herweier. “There is no reason that women cannot work in the trades in equal numbers to men.”

A recent study by Heather Mayer and Kate Braid of Simon Fraser University concluded that the number of women working in the construction trades has remained low — from 0.7 per cent in 1971, to 3.1 per cent in 2006. Retention of women in the industry is a concern: while greater numbers of women enter apprenticeship programs, few complete the four years required to get their journey ticket. A ticket leads to higher wages, greater job security, and a designation that is recognized across Canada and abroad.

There are few women working on Whistler construction projects, but the ones who have chosen to work in the industry enjoy good incomes. Annual earnings in the construction trades start at $50,000, and can climb to $250,000, according to the B.C. Construction Association. In an August Globe and Mail article profiling women working on Alberta’s construction sites, a 24-year-old woman, who left a clerical job to become an apprentice millwright and doubled her income, said: “women who don’t consider (construction) are just uninformed.”

Greater female participation in the construction trades starts with awareness and encouragement — something that doesn’t seem to be happening in the high schools, where boys have always looked at trades as an alternative to university. Lindy Monahan, project manager of the B.C. Construction Association’s Step Program for Women, says female participation in construction trades will remain low unless attitudes change, both in schools and on the home front.

“The guidance counsellors in the high schools, as well as parents, are not doing a good enough job of encouraging construction trades to girls as a career option,” Monahan says. Peer pressure also plays a role. “Girls don’t want to be the ‘only one’ doing something among their friends,” she adds.

In 2005, Pemberton Secondary School implemented a carpentry apprentice program, which enables Grade 12 students to complete their first year apprenticeship while still in high school. In its first year, 21 boys enrolled. Last year, seven boys completed the program. There has not been a single female student enrolled thus far. Poul Jakobsen, a former BCIT instructor who teaches the carpentry program at Pemberton Secondary, admits that intimidation, and the newness of the program, may be causing female students to pass over this very practical, creative, and potentially lucrative opportunity.

Jordan Kobelka, a 2005 graduate of Whistler Secondary School, says the atmosphere at her high school was similar; girls were not really introduced to the trades as a possible career choice. Kobelka says that university was emphasized, but the trades were an option “geared to the boys.” Even when she talked to her guidance counsellor, construction trades were not brought up. She believes that bringing some women currently working in the construction trades into the school would make the industry more attractive and more accessible to young women contemplating life after graduation.

Kobelka’s father is a plumbing contractor, and he got his daughter started in the business stocking parts as a summer job. In order for her to become more familiar with the different plumbing parts her father’s employees needed, he sent her out on the job sites. Now she is working as an apprentice plumber, and has experienced a variety of job sites and responsibilities, from “working at the Chateau, to working on the new university in Squamish, to doing renos in Whistler.”

Has the atmosphere on the job been hospitable to her?

“Absolutely. Most of the time, the guys have been great. There have been a few times when I got some weird looks, but most of the time I have had no problem.”

Kobelka believes that as more women get into construction trades, “it will become a generational thing. People will have moms that are plumbers or electricians. It will make it a lot easier. It is hard to be the only woman on the job site. If no other women are doing a job, what does that say? Who wants to be the first one to try?”

There is a perception that you have to be big and brawny to work in the construction trades but Kobelka says that’s not the case. “Anyone starting out as an apprentice is going to struggle a bit at first, boy or girl,” she says. It is a question of getting your body used to doing the work and getting in shape. “I see new (male) apprentices struggling as much as I did. You gain strength as you go along.”

Kobelka’s favourite part of the job is “seeing the finished product.” It is very satisfying to start a job at the rough-in stage (the initial stage of construction when the pipes are being laid) and then putting in the basins and shining the taps. “My dad actually likes me to do that part because he thinks women have a better attention to detail. When you mount the sink, it has to be level and straight with the backsplash, there can’t be a stray bead of silicone dripping anywhere. It has to be perfect, basically.”

The worst part of the job? “Hey, it’s plumbing! It can be very dirty. No matter how hard you try, you are inevitably going to get stuff on you.” (Kobelka does not go the details of what that “stuff” is, but needless to say, plumbers of either gender are going to have their challenging moments.) “Obviously you are going to have stuff that is dirty in a bathroom — that’s where you go to get clean!” she laughs.

Krista Humphrey had her hand in the traditional “pink-ghetto” of office administration at Children’s Hospital in Toronto before she and her partner, Bernie, decided to make the move to B.C.

“We were going to go out to Gabriola Island and take a timber framing course first,” she explains.

But Bernie had a friend in Whistler so they decided to drop in and visit him first. He was a tile setter and offered to teach Krista and Bernie everything he knew.

“He was swamped with work, so we decided to give it a go, instead of going somewhere else and paying someone to teach us. We were going to learn on the job.”

After a year and half, the pair struck out on their own and haven’t looked back. They now work on the biggest and most elaborate residential projects in Whistler, and are booked months in advance. Humphrey feels the best part of her job is the freedom it affords her.

“I can work 12-hour days for a week and then take the next week off,” she says. “I set my own schedule. It is very satisfying that way.”

Was it hard at first to be the only female on a job site?

“Nothing too awful happened. There were other carpenters, trades, who did their best to make me feel uncomfortable,” she says. “But after six years of doing this job, my work speaks for itself. I have gained a lot of confidence.”

One thing Humphrey has noticed working on a new job site is that other trades may be reluctant to talk to her about work matters. “Sometimes the other guys will wait until Bernie is around if they have to discuss something about our work, thinking that I don’t know enough. But as they get to know me that changes, and they will come and talk to me too.”

At this point, the job site is not intimidating to her. “A lot of guys on these jobs have the same interests as us; hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding. Our best friends are people we have met on the job site,” she says. “It is a great group of people out here.”

The most satisfying part of the job to Krista is the sense of accomplishment she feels when a job is completed. “You get to stand back and say ‘I did that!’” she says. She also enjoys the freedom the paycheque gives her. Her income is double that of her clerical job at the hospital.

Humphrey is surprised there are not more women working in the construction trades in Whistler. “Whistler women are strong — they could easily do this work,” she says.

Downsides? “It would be nice to go to work and stay clean all day,” she jokes. “I go to work in coveralls, with a kerchief keeping my hair back.”

MaryAnn Hanstke is an electrician in her early 40s, who has been working at the trade for 12 years. At 130 pounds and 5’8”, Hanstke says the more physically demanding aspects of the job require her to use her body wisely and ask for help if she needs it. “Any physically fit woman could do this job,” says Hanstke firmly. “The main thing is that you are organized. On a job site, that is critical.”

To Hanstke, the job security and salary are very important aspects of her trade. “I know I can go anywhere in the world, and still get work. I won’t have to start at the bottom of the heap.” A union ticketed electrician makes $41 an hour. The non-union rate is $30 an hour. “Those are just not the kind of wages you earn in clerical work,” she says. “I know I am going to be financially secure, no matter what.”

Hanstke says the worst part of the job is “when its minus-17 and the wind is blowing and you can’t just say ‘No, I don’t want to work outside today.’ That’s when you earn your pay. But I can laugh about it afterwards.”

When asked about the atmosphere on the job site, Hanstke says the vast majority of people she works with are “fantastic.”

“When I was working in the Lower Mainland, there were some workers on the job site who were just very uneducated men,” she remembers. “I put my headphones on at the start of the day, until I was done, so I wouldn’t have to listen to what they were saying.”

She insists that job sites in Whistler are different. “If I started here and then went somewhere else I don’t know if it would have been the same for me.”

Like any job, the electrical trade has its ups and downs. Renovations are a part of the job that Hanstke could do without. “Renos can be really dirty — when you are ripping out old asbestos-laden insulation, full of mould and mildew. It can be disgusting.”

What would Hanstke say to young women in high school contemplating career options? “The challenge is phenomenal. Not everyone is cut out to be an academic. And the money is good.”

Hanstke also enjoys the fact that the job keeps her fit. “I used to be into rock climbing. Now, at the end of the day I just want to relax.”

Asked why there aren’t more wome in the construction trades Hanstke says the doors haven’t been opened in the right way. “There was an affirmative action program in the ’80s and ’90s but it didn’t lead to women sticking with (the trades),” she says. “Now the women in the trades want to be there — they have proven themselves. Women will not remain employed unless they can do the job. It is that simple.”

Lindy Monahan adds that the affirmative action program for women in construction trades ended in the ’80s, when there was a recession and a slowdown in the construction industry. Female participation in construction trades falls in and out of favour depending on the state of the economy. “Right now there is a construction boom in B.C. and Alberta, so people are looking at women in construction again,” Monahan says.

Hanstke looks forward to future years when she can work as a project manager and do less of the physical work that the electrical trade requires. “It’s like any career — there is a momentum, and you want to gear down in your 50s,” she says. “It will be gratifying to teach the trade to others.”

With regard to some of the high school trade apprenticeship programs, such as the carpentry program at Pemberton Secondary, Hanstke says: “It’s the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s the European way. It took them a long time to catch on to that.”

It’s time for the girls to catch on too.