Until recently, all I’d ever learned about welding came from watching “Flashdance.”
Next week, a group of young women who didn’t have the pleasure of growing up in the ’80s will learn the same thing, though less glamourized — you want to be both an accomplished welder and a professional dancer? Go for it; you can.
For a morning last week, I was invited by the Women in Resource Development Corp. (WRDC) and College of the North Atlantic to the college’s St. John’s campus to learn about their upcoming Techsploration: Orientation to Trades and Technology program. Having gone through WRDC’s Camp Glow initiation to firefighting training seven years ago, I’ve learned to accept any invitation the organization extends to me, knowing it’s going to be an interesting — albeit challenging — opportunity for a story.
WRDC’s goal is to increase the participation of women in the trades and technology sectors in Newfoundland and Labrador, and its work includes education, providing increased access to training for females, and helping to develop policies that promote the involvement of women in the natural resource and trades/technical industries.
The Techsploration program that will start on Monday is designed to give young women practical experience in trades, and can be the first step for them towards an exciting and well-paying career. Though WRDC has been offering Techsploration for 10 years, this is the first time the program has been presented for younger women, ages 17-22.
Over the 13-week program, 16 young women will be introduced to automotive servicing, welding, pipefitting, carpentry, electronics and as many other non-traditional trades for females as WRDC and the college instructors can fit in. The program will cover academic requirements, essential work skills, personal and professional development, hands-on training, labour market research and job shadowing
“We’re hoping they’ll find one trade that they’re interested in and pursue it,” said Mary Clarke, WRDC’s community outreach co-ordinator. “Right now, only four per cent of skilled tradespeople are women, so we’re trying to get the numbers up to a practical level, considering women are 52 per cent of the population. The reason a lot of women don’t go into those careers is because they feel intimidated, so this is a way for them to get a bit of practice and a bit of an introduction and for them to see if they can do it.”
More than 550 women have gone through the orientation course; about 40 per cent of them have gone on to pursue careers in trades, Clarke explained.
First up for me was the automotive department, where the college houses about 50 new model vehicles, donated for learning purposes by the manufacturers. Instructor Brian Druken led me to a blue Chevy Aveo and gave me a refresher on how to change a flat tire — something I hadn’t done since I was 17 and looking to get my licence. He also taught me how to check the oil and pointed out other various pieces under the hood, illustrating with funny stories the importance of things like not confusing brake fluid with radiator coolant.
About 10 per cent of the college’s automotive students are female, Druken told me.
“We’d like to see the numbers way higher, but I think it takes time and lots of promotion of women in skilled trades,” he said.
Welding student Cyndi House, a native of Daniel’s Harbour, was my welding instructor for the morning. Wearing a blue jumpsuit, pigtails hidden behind her face mask, House showed me the basics of metal inert gas (MIG) welding. I had a welding gun with a wire electrode, connected to a power source; two pieces of metal I was expected to melt with the electricity, and House, explaining how an electric arc would be formed between the gun and the metal, causing it to melt and join together.
I learned quickly that welding is very much an art, and takes some meticulous skill.
“They say women are better at welding than men, because we’re so particular,” House said, grinning as she pushed her helmet back from her face. She’s the only woman in her class of 14, she said.
“Getting out of high school, I was pressured to figure out what I wanted to do,” she told me of how she got interested in welding. “My pop was the one who pressured me to do a trade; he told me there’s always going to be a job and it’s never going to run out. I started researching what I wanted to do and welding seemed to be the most interesting to me.”
Pop was right, according to Clarke.
“Statistics are showing us that there’s going to be a shortage of skilled workers and it’s a good time for women to get their foot in the door to get a skilled trade,” she explained.
It’s a shortage the oil and gas industry is recognizing. The Hebron and Hibernia projects have partnered in the presentation of the orientation program, and are providing a total of $200,000 to fully fund the participants’ tuition.
The physical requirements of skilled trades are applicable to both sexes, explained the college’s campus administrator, Gerard Morris. It’s only tradition holding women back.
“Traditionally, that’s just how it was; some people didn’t think it was acceptable for a woman to be a skilled tradesperson, they thought it was a man’s domain,” he said. “Through programs like this, we can enable women to get involved in what we used to call non-traditional trades. What we want to do is show them that in the real world, these jobs are available to women as well as men.”
There are still some spaces left in the Orientation to Trades and Tecnology program. More information is available by calling 738-1058.